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Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) vs. Experience Sampling Methodology (ESM): What are the differences?

Dr. Louis Tay
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In the realm of real-time data collection research, the terms Experience Sampling Method (ESM) and Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) are often used interchangeably. These methodologies involve collecting survey data—and other data types—multiple times throughout the day and across different days. Despite their similarities, there are nuanced distinctions rooted in their historical development and primary objectives. Recognizing the subtleties between ESM and EMA can empower researchers to choose the appropriate method for their study objectives.

The Origins and Aims of ESM

Historically, the discipline of psychology has sought to comprehend human behavior within everyday contexts. Donald Fiske (1971) emphasized the importance of measuring the typical behaviors, perceptions, and actions of individuals. Emerging from this ambition to encapsulate real-life experiences, ESM was conceptualized.

Pioneers such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Reed Larson, and Suzanne Prescott applied ESM in their studies on adolescents to answer pressing questions about their daily activities, their motivations, and their psychological responses to these activities. ESM is rooted in the aim to represent activities and experiences authentically within a target population's natural setting.

EMA's Clinical and Health Psychology Foundations

Developed by Arthur Stone and his colleagues, EMA originated from clinical and health psychology. Behavior therapy and the practice of self-monitoring were significant motivators, aiming to help participants consistently track specific behaviors—such as addictive or dysfunctional actions—with the intent to modify them. Health psychology contributed through the practice of ambulatory assessments (e.g., blood pressure monitoring) to capture the dynamic nature of behaviors as they unfold naturally.

Hence, while ESM is centered on representativeness, EMA is more concerned with the real-time evolution of behaviors in natural environments.

Terminology and Use at ExpiWell

At ExpiWell, we prefer the term ESM to honor the methodology's historical roots, reflecting the initial studies that utilized technology to capture repeated survey data within participants. Nonetheless, this term encompasses a broader range of studies, including all variations of ESM and EMA, as well as diverse longitudinal research. There are some key differentiators on 4 dimensions.

Aspects of Ecological Validity
  • ESM: Focuses on representativeness; representative activities; representative subjective experiences
  • EMA: Focus on momentariness; momentary activities; momentary subjective experiences
Analytic Focus
  • ESM: Frequencies of activities; general psychological levels across and within activities (e.g., motivation, mood)
  • EMA: Trajectories of psychological phenomena; dispersion of psychological phenomena over time (e.g., positivity spirals); dynamics of psychological phenomena (i.e., how one dimension relates to another over time)
When are Surveys Taken?
  • ESM: Representativeness-focus; general activities and experiences over the days and weeks; time-contingent (i.e., regular timed surveys); signal-contingent (i.e., whenever a notification is sent)
  • EMA: Phenomenon-focus; measuring appropriate intervals to assess changes in psychological phenomena; time-contingent (i.e., regular timed surveys); signal-contingent (i.e., whenever a notification is sent); event-contingent (i.e., whenever an event occurs)
Mode of Data/Reporting
  • ESM: Self-reported experience-related surveys
  • EMA: Generally any type of self-reported surveys; also includes health data, physical data, relational data, work data, etc.

To assist researchers in easily distinguishing between these two methodologies, we provide a summary table below that outlines their differences. This resource is designed to help clarify which method may be best suited for various research objectives.

Conclusion

Understanding the differences between ESM and EMA can greatly impact the design and outcomes of research studies. By choosing the right method, researchers can obtain more accurate and representative data, leading to more effective interventions and understanding of behaviors in real-world contexts.

ExpiWell’s real-time data collection tool utilizes ESM best practices to better understand your audience. Please feel free to contact me at louis@expiwell.com should you be interested or have any questions.

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