Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA): Increasing Rigor with Sampling Apps

Dr. Louis Tay
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EMA Background

According to leading scholars,Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) is viewed not simply as a single research method or technology platform (see Schiffman, Stone & Hufford, 2008). This is because EMA stems from multiple historical traditions, which include seeking to address biases in recall and autobiographical memory in cognitive and memory research (Bradburn et al., 1987), incorporating diary methods and richer subjective experiences (Iida et al., 2012), and utilizing ambulatory methods from health and medical research (e.g., heart rate monitoring).

How it works

Yet, two of the main features of EMA are increasingly tied to technology. This includes the “ecological” aspect of EMA, where researchers seek to find ways to understand human behavior in everyday ecology or the daily contexts of human life. In this day and age, this goal of seamlessly recording daily contexts requires us to move past the use of notebooks, pagers, or paper surveys. While we cannot ultimately remove the effects of close momentary observation, we can seek to make it less obtrusive and reduce changes in people’s routines and behaviors where possible. We need to draw on technological tools that harmoniously transact with the everyday space.

Another feature of EMA is “momentary assessment.” These are carefully crafted occasions that both the participant and the researcher believe are temporal windows to the phenomenology of interest. The simple approach of relying on participants to fill in surveys and turn them in at the end of the study is insufficiently rigorous. Researchers need to use technology to implement specific time windows where participant responses and behavior are recorded. Moreover, when subjective experiences are sought, participants need to be “pinged” or notified. And often, even be reminded when they have not responded.

The Future of Sampling Apps

Given these issues, more rigorous and sophisticated EMA research now relies increasingly on mobile apps. On the “ecological” front, many adults now carry a smartphone. According to Pew Research, 85% of Americans own a smartphone. People are used to living life with a smartphone and communicating with it. Leveraging this technology is essential to create a more seamless observation of life. On the “momentary assessment” front, mobile apps enable timed notifications and reminders in user’s time zones to capture the key moments of interest. Mobile apps go a step further to enable the capture of video, voice, and location and can even unobtrusively capture other types of behaviors.

The use of EMA in research is rising. There are more studies now on EMA, and it is no longer considered novel. Whether we prefer it or not, editors, reviewers, and readers of our research will evaluate the rigor of the study based on how well it has leveraged current technology, especially in the use of mobile apps. But one of the challenges is that amazing researchers are probably not mobile app developers. And I’m not sure about you, but I personally prefer to spend my time writing my next paper or analyzing data rather than trying to fiddle around with open source technology that is often not well-maintained, especially with frequent iOS and Android system updates and constant data security concerns. Or worse, have my grad students spend an inordinate time on those issues when their opportunity cost is their classes and research.


Bradburn, N. M., Rips, L. J., & Shevell, S. K. (1987). Answering autobiographical questions: The impact of memory and inference on surveys. Science, 236(4798), 157-161.

Iida, M., Shrout, P. E., Laurenceau, J.-P., & Bolger, N. (2012). Using diary methods in psychological research. In H. Cooper, P. M. Camic, D. L. Long, A. T. Panter, D. Rindskopf, & K. J. Sher (Eds.), APA handbook of research methods in psychology, Vol. 1. Foundations, planning, measures, and psychometrics (pp. 277–305). American Psychological Association. 

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

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