What Is Ecological Momentary Assessment?

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Anyone familiar with the culture of the “Sixties” knows the influence of ancient philosophies. Traditions from places like India emphasized the importance of checking in with yourself in real time, and experiencing the present fully conscious — “Be here now.” This is why Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) sounds familiar. It is a form of data collection, and also of cultivating self-awareness.

The technique behind Ecological Momentary Assessment is to describe what is going on at certain moments of the day. The moments may be scheduled, or random, or dependent on a certain behavior, like drug use or an eating binge. Or any combination of those. The person pauses to take stock of, and document, current thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Why do researchers like this? Because self-reporting is dicey at best, and “retrospective recall” makes it worse. Even studies that require subjects to make a diary or journal entry at the end of the day are not satisfactory. The farther away events are in time, the less reliable the memory becomes. There is a concern that sources of bias may intervene.

When the objective is to learn about something as complicated as, for instance, obesity, the tools need to competently handle many complex factors all at once. For these reasons, researchers call the data derived from EMA “ecologically valid,” or at least more valid than some other kinds.

It is ecological because the subjects are in their natural environments and doing what they normally do. One source describes EMA as…

[…] a group of methods, developed by personality/social psychologists […] which permit the research participant to report on symptoms, affect and behavior close in time to experience and which sample many events or time periods.

In other words, it provides the scope to include several dimensions of behavior in the one study, including social interactions and mood, and the interactions between those factors. A potential difficulty has been spotlighted, in that the procedures required by EMA are more demanding than “more global types of assessment.” But Debbie S. Moskowitz and Simon N. Young found that…

[…] impulsivity does not seem to prevent the use of EMA methods, because they have been applied successfully to patients with borderline personality disorder, bulimia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and violent patients.

The EMA tool can be used for many purposes. A 2006 study sought to determine whether there might be a better way to assess social functioning in the particular context of clinical psychopharmacology. In this field, it can takes months or years to discover what medication works for each particular patient, and in what amounts. To really fine-tune the dosage of these powerful drugs the practitioner needs “wide-ranging and detailed measurements of mood and behavior.”

Many vital quality-of-life issues are concerned here. The symptoms of any disorder can throw a monkey wrench into social interactions, ranging from the mundane to the crucial. The ability to connect either a failed or a successful social interaction with other factors in real time (or almost) provides important clues in the pursuit of more successful encounters with others in the world.

Moskowitz and Young wrote:

In summary, measures that can be classified under the rubric of EMA methodology have been shown to be reliable and valid, can show excellent matching between the measure and the theoretical definition of the outcome, reduce reliance on retrospective memory and reduce the need to rely on the integrative judgements of either the clinician or the respondent.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Utilizing Ecological Momentary Assessment in Pediatric Obesity to Quantify Behavior, Emotion, and Sleep,” NIH.gov, December 2009
Source: “Ecological momentary assessment: what it is and why it is a method of the future in clinical psychopharmacology,” NIH.gov, January 2006
Images: @JesseFernandez (top), @thatcarlygirl (bottom)

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