The Science



What do people really think throughout the day? What are they feeling? How are they actually living? How do we facilitate positive, lasting change–the kind that takes hold in people’s daily lives? For decades, behavioral scientists have tried to answer these questions, relying on surveys and experiments to gain new insights and develop effective interventions. But limitations of both methods have slowed progress.

Recently, psychologists have begun developing a new approach to the same old questions. This new approach called ecological momentary assessment and intervention (EMA/EMI), is a way of interacting with people as they live their lives moment-by-moment. It is a way of collecting information, or of encouraging new ways of living, in real-time. Our goal is to make it widely available to everyone who owns a smartphone (see Runyan et al. 2013).

With over 1.75 billion people using smartphones, the opportunities for using smartphone-based EMA/EMI with experience sampling to better understand ourselves, and make a positive impact, are virtually endless (Miller, 2012).



Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), or experience sampling, involves repeatedly gathering information from people as they go about their day. By asking the same questions at various times of the day, and in different contexts, we can see how their experiences vary. We can also better understand the factors related to these variations (like time of day, location, previous experiences, interactions with others, etc.). We can begin to see patterns in people’s daily lives that would otherwise be missed. For example, a recent EMA study found that being the “target” of a moral act had a greater effect on peoples’ moods, while performing a moral act had a greater impact on their sense of purpose (Hofmann et al. 2014).

So rather than using a survey to ask “Rate your mood over the past two weeks”, EMA asks “Rate your mood right now” at several points throughout the day. It provides a way of getting information about what may be impacting a person’s mood at various points in time.



As research continues to show, there are multiple benefits to EMA over traditional survey approaches (see Shiffman, Stone & Hufford, 2008). Traditional surveys are like a photo, capturing a moment in time, but not allowing us to see things unfold. Additionally, surveys often ask people general questions about previous days, weeks or months. And memory limitations can cause survey-takers to provide unreliable information. So the pictures of life that surveys provide are often “blurry.”

EMA gathers data much closer to real-time, repeatedly asking people to share the moments of their daily lives as they unfold. As a result, we end up with more reliable data and a “movie-like” picture that captures the rhythm and dynamic nature of daily life.



Ecological Momentary Interventions (EMI) are real-time interventions delivered to people as they go about their daily lives. This cutting edge approach helps people change by overcoming the “knowledge-action gap”, often left open by traditional interventions. That is to say, people who have been taught what to do often fail to act on that knowledge because of existing habits and patterns; or because they just don’t think of it once they get into their daily routines. EMI solves this problem by meeting people in the midst of existing thought and behavioral patterns and offering effective principles and practices designed to encourage growth. For example, EMI can be used to foster gratitude by asking people “What is going on right now that you are grateful for?”.

So we might think of EMI as a kind of “coach”, helping people practice and implement the best strategies in daily lives. It helps people integrate new thinking and behavioral patterns into their lives. EMI meets people in their daily context. And context matters. Research shows people often have a tendency to revert back to old habits of thought and behavior when they are in the contexts where they developed these habits (e.g., Crombag et al. 2008; Ryell & Gawronski 2009). Since context can cue past patterns of thought and behavior, it makes sense to help people change by interacting with them in the context of their daily lives.


Crombag, H.S., Bossert, J.M., Koya, E. and Shaham, Y. (2008). Context-induced relapse to drug seeking: a review. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363, 3233-3243.

Hofmann, W., Wisneski, D., Brandt, M., Skitka, L. (2014). Morality in everyday life. Science, 345, 1340-43.

Miller, G. (2012). The smartphone psychology manifesto. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 7, 221-237.

Runyan, J. D., Steenbergh, T. S., Bainbridge, C., Daugherty, D. A., Oke, L., & Fry, B. N. (2013). A smartphone ecological momentary assessment/intervention “app” for collecting real-time data and promoting self-awareness. PLOS One. Available here.

Rydell, R.J., and Gawronski, B. (2009). I like you, I like you not: Understanding the formation of context-dependent automatic attitudes. Cognition and Emotion 23, 1118-1152.

Shiffman, S., Stone, A. A., & Hufford, M. R. (2008). Ecological momentary assessment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 4, 1-32.

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