In the 1980s, the Experience-Sampling Method (ESM) revolutionized the psychological study of human experience during daily life. It was made possible by the pager. Yes, the pager, or beeper, the ancestor of the two-way and cell phone. The thing that businesspeople and doctors wore on their hips during the 80s and 90s.
The pager was the first cordless communication device that allowed someone to send us a message beyond the reach of a landline, and it also helped psychologists make a huge leap in their ability to design solid human experience experiments.
ESM is a research method first proposed by Reed Larson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1983 that psychologists use to study human experience. See Chapters 2 and 3, here. It generates psychological snapshots of specific moments in peoples’ lives. ESM asks the participants in a study to self-report using a systematic survey at random times of the day. There are five main pieces to the ESM toolkit:
The participants. They can be any group of interest to researchers studying peoples’ thoughts and feelings during the activities of everyday life. ESM has been the primary data collection and analysis method in some of the most widely referenced research about human happiness, motivation, and flow.
The signal. Participants are each given a signaling device programmed to cue them at random to fill out an Experience Sampling Form. To produce a solid stream of data that represents daily life, researchers usually program the device to randomly signal once within every 2 hour block between 8 AM and 10 PM for one week. It’s essential that participants are completely unaware of when the signal may go off – otherwise they may become self-conscious and change what they’re doing. The first signaling device that kick-started ESM was the pager in the 1980s. In the 1990s it became possible to pre program alarms on cell phones. Today, there are several smartphone app softwares that researchers use.
Experience Sampling Forms (ESF). This is a questionnaire that researchers design based on the specific human experience or group of people they are studying. It prompts participants to describe what they are doing at the moment the pager beeps, then asks questions about how they feel. Participants answer the questions using a numbered scale, which allows researchers to statistically analyze the data later. Each participant carries a booklet of Experience Sampling Forms around during the week of the study. When the pager signals, they fill out a form, which takes about a minute.
Followup interviews. After the week of the study is over, researchers meet with each participant and go over their ESFs together. This lets people elaborate on their responses and tell stories about their week, which adds to the richness of the data.
Data analysis. Researchers use the structure of the questionnaire to process the data for analysis. The questionnaire is usually a combination of open ended questions and quantitative responses on a numbered scale. The open ended questions usually target their activity – what they are doing at that moment. These qualitative responses get coded into categories of responses. The tricky part of coding is to come up with codes that are general enough to lump similar responses, but refined enough to not lose anything important – depending on the focus of the study, codes could be things like “making dinner”, “transporting kids”, or “doing homework”. Questionnaires also may include open-ended questions asking participants to describe their thoughts or emotions, which would also be coded. Researchers analyze the codes to look for patterns, or themes, that explain the data. The quantitative numbered scale responses get statistically analyzed. Together, the themes and the statistics provide both descriptive and numbered data for researchers to compare with hypotheses and theories to decide whether they hold up.
The Experience Sampling Method is responsible for the launch of human experience research. Think for a minute about what human experience means – it is the internal dialogue and emotions of an individual human being moment upon moment throughout their life. It is entirely subjective and ever changing. Without being able to actually look inside someone else’s head, it’s pretty hard to get at if you are a researcher. The next best thing would be for a researcher to physically accompany research participants and ask questions about their thoughts and feelings as each day unfolded. Can you imagine a psychologist following you around and interrupting everything you do with questions about how you feel? Psychologists knew that wouldn’t work for a lot of reasons, and that it would fundamentally change the data. Before pager technology, human experience research was limited to diary analyses, interviews, and quantitative questionnaires. Only when the pager gave birth to ESM did it become possible to gather real time human experience data on a large scale.
For the first time, ESM allowed people to report how they were feeling while they were feeling it. ESM allows researchers to really get at human experience in real time. The data open various windows into a person’s life: How do they spend their time? What is the content of their thoughts throughout the day? What are their emotional patterns? How do their emotions correlate with the things they do, the people they interact with, and the places they live, work, and play? Positive psychology is at its core an attempt to understand and describe the human experience of fulfillment and well-being. Using ESM, positive psychology research has revealed many mechanisms for human happiness, internal motivation, and the experience of flow states.
ESM allows psychologists to study human experience on a large scale. Because the pager signal is paired with a questionnaire that is easy to fill out, participants can contribute a large amount of data in a short amount of time. A week-long study with a hundred participants can yield thousands of data points. This provides researchers with large data sets to test and refine psychological theory.
Kurt Lewin in the 1930s was one of the first psychologists to advocate for understanding human experience in daily life. He believed that looking closely at what people experience during their daily activities would reveal the psychological mechanisms that drive behavior. The problem was, he never developed a method for actually doing it.
Others used diary methods to get participants to self-report about daily experience. See Bevans 1913 and Robinson 2002. Diary analyses can provide a look at someone’s private internal dialogue, but were mostly used to analyze human behavior rather than the internal thought processes and feelings that drive behavior. Also, when people make diary entries, they are usually reflecting on something that already happened. So, the data reflects their memory of the experience, rather than their experience of the experience.
In the 1960s and 1970s, personality researchers developed interview and questionnaire methods to target peoples’ thoughts and emotions in association with life experiences. Interviews can yield deep data, but they are time consuming for researchers to conduct and even more tedious to analyze. Questionnaires are an efficient way to gather and analyze data from a lot of participants. However, there was a serious methodological problem for both of these methods: they produce data about human experience after the fact. Research in the late 60s and 70s suggested that people have a difficult time remembering their feelings during past experiences, and so their own faulty memory will bias their perspective of a past experience during an interview or while filling out a questionnaire. See Mischel 1968, Willems 1969, and Yarmey 1979.
When the pager was invented and became widely available, Larson and Csikszentmihalyi saw an opportunity. They pioneered the ESM method leveraging the valuable pieces of questionnaires and interviews to gather human experience data in real time. Participant samples can be very large because questionnaires generate efficient data. Each participant self-produces a pile of questionnaires throughout the study period, all representing their feelings during a distinct moment in time. Often, researchers sit down with a subset of the participants after the ESM week is done for an interview to review their responses and add details. ESM data-sets can therefore be very large and efficient to analyze, while also providing deep nuance and insight.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Larson, R. 1987. Validity and Reliability of the Experience-Sampling Method. Journal of Nervous and Mental Health Disease 175(9): pp. 526-536.
Larson, R. and Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1983. The Experience Sampling Method. H.T. Reis (Ed.), New Directions for Methodology of Social and Behavioral Sciences 15: pp. 41-56. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Lewin, K. 1935. A dynamic theory of personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Mischel, W. 1968. Personality and assessment. New York: Wiley.
Robinson J.P. 2002. The Time-Diary Method. In: Pentland W.E., Harvey A.S., Lawton M.P., McColl M.A. (eds) Time Use Research in the Social Sciences. Springer, Boston, MA
Willems, E. 1969. Planning a rationale for naturalistic research. In E. Willems & H. Raush (Eds.), Naturalistic viewpoints in psychological research. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Yarmey, D. 1979. The psychology of eyewitness testimony. New York: Free Press.