Meet the Future of Experience Sampling Research

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An interview with two rising stars leading the next generation of experience sampling research.

We’re currently at the dawn of the 3rd generation of data collection methods and tools. The 1st generation being pen and paper studies. The 2nd introducing the first digital tools such as static, web-based surveys (think Qualtrics, Typeform, etc.). The 3rd generation builds from the shoulders of giants and will be characterized by a.) mobile-first technology, b.) real-time & real-world data (behavioral or self-report), and c.) mutual exchange (harmony between what a participant receives in exchange for what information they provide). The science at the core of the new generation of data collection will be the Experience Sampling Method (ESM).  

"ESM studies have grown 6X over the past 10 years thanks to the growth of app technologies such as ExpiWell."

Given better access and digital capabilities, more and more researchers are searching for ways to incorporate experience sampling and ecological momentary assessment studies into their research programs. With researchers of all stripes looking toward innovative approaches to experience sampling research, it’s important now more than ever to learn from researchers at the cutting edge.

I had the great privilege to speak with Dr. Jessie Sun and Dr. O. Dorian Boncoeur, two rising stars leading the next generation of experience sampling research. Both are recent winners of ExpiWell’s inaugural dissertation award. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn about their journey to ESM, what they’re up to now, and where they plan to take their research in the future. Remarkable insight from remarkable people. 

Let’s meet the researchers!

Dr. Jessie Sun is a MindCORE Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and an incoming assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis (starting in Fall 2022). Dr. Sun uses a diverse methodological toolkit, including experience sampling, naturalistic audio recordings, informant reports, and personality change interventions.

Dr. Sun received her Ph.D. from UC Davis, where she worked in the Personality and Self-Knowledge Lab. Prior to graduate school, she received her BA (Honours) from the University of Melbourne and worked as a RA for the Personality Processes Lab, Centre for Positive Psychology, and the Williams Social Emotions Lab.

Dr. O. Dorian Boncoeur is an Assistant Professor at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on three ways through which organizations can foster human sustainability for their employees: promoting healthy sleep, reducing incivility, and creating inclusive diversity climates. His work has been published at Personnel Psychology, the Journal of Business Ethics, and the Journal of Business Research, and is currently under review at Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Prior to receiving his PhD at the University of Texas at Dallas, he worked as a research associate at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces. He received a Masters in Intercultural Humanities from Jacobs University Bremen, a Masters in Sociology at the University of Bordeaux, and a Bachelor's degree in French studies from University of Mauritius.

Uncovering the motivation for the field

Drs. Sun and Boncoeur were gracious with their time and input and shed light into what motivates their work and where they see the field going!

1. How do you describe your research focus?

Dr. Sun: I study two fundamental aspects of the good life—well-being and morality—in real-world contexts. Thus, broadly speaking, my research asks how people can lead fulfilling lives and balance their personal desires with other people's needs and rights. More specifically, much of my research focuses on the role of personality processes and everyday social interactions. For example, I’ve addressed questions such as: 1) How does personality matter for the pursuit of well-being? 2) What kinds of social interactions feel more rewarding? 3) Do people want to be more moral?

Dr. Boncoeur: I became interested in sleep, well-being, and workplace behavior because I was curious about the factors that help (or hinder) employees thriving at work. Overtime, these issues emerged as the aspects of human sustainability in the workplace that I wanted to explore.

2. How did you first get interested in this particular area of research?

Dr. Boncoeur: I became interested in these topics because I was curious about the factors that help (or hinder) employees thriving at work. With my dissertation, I wanted to focus on sleep because there is still so much that we do not know about this behavior that constitutes about a third of employees lives.  My aim was to help enhance our understanding of sleep (and its mechanics) on how employees emote, and act at work. By diving deeper into the internal process of sleep, my dissertation helps answerwhy do employees need to sleep longer and what aspect of sleep is key for individual behavior at work. Over time, these issues emerged as the aspects of human sustainability in the workplace which inform my current research agenda.

Dr. Sun: I became really interested in well-being research after taking a positive psychology class in 2013 (at the University of Melbourne). This led me to seek research assistantships at the Positive Psychology Center at Penn (as an undergraduate exchange student) and the Centre for Wellbeing Research (at the University of Melbourne). I later did my undergraduate honors thesis in the Personality Processes Lab (with Dr. Luke Smillie), where I used ESM to investigate why people feel happier when they’re acting more extraverted.

My interest in moral psychology really stems from my interest in well-being. What I’ve increasingly realized is that maximizing and equitably distributing well-being requires people to suppress their selfishness and make an effort for the benefit of others. For example, the generosity of people who live in wealthier countries can make a massive difference to the well-being of people who are living in poverty. Similarly, many of the big problems of the future (e.g., global warming) require that people make some personal sacrifices for future generations. So, I’ve recently become interested in understanding whether there are tradeoffs between personal well-being and morality, and how we can encourage moral improvements for the greater good.

3. Why was ESM / EMA the best approach for your work?

Dr. Boncoeur: Although being normally distributed, sleep is far from being a stable phenomenon. Some nights employees sleep longer or shorter than their normal baseline, and the internal structure of each night’s sleep also varies tremendously. ESM was the best approach as it allowed me to capture the daily-lived and in-situ experiences of sleep on a nightly basis.

"With ESM/EMA I was able to leverage techniques adopted in the sleep sciences while avoiding some of its limitations (e.g. first night effect) and integrating into the study of individual behavior of employees at work and beyond. It allowed me to capture multiple dimensions of sleep outside of a lab, and to assess employees’ attitudes, cognition and behaviors as they emerged at work."

Dr. Sun:
I’ve always been a firm believer that if you want to know what people are really like, you need to study them in the context of their everyday lives (as opposed to in the lab). In addition, many of my research questions focus on dynamic, within-person processes that can only really be captured using EMA. Finally, if you want to study behavior, you should use behavioral measures. ESM gets close, but in the end, it is strictly a self-report measure, and may not be ideal for measuring highly socially (un)desirable behaviors (e.g., being kind vs. rude), or for measuring the content of people’s speech. On the other hand, ESM is great for measuring subjective experiences that are less behaviorally observable (e.g., thoughts, emotions).

To study actual behavior, I worked with Dr. Simine Vazire on the Personality and Interpersonal Roles Study (PAIRS). This study used the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR) to record naturalistic audio recordings of people’s everyday behaviors. These EAR recordings were later transcribed and coded for various behaviors by a team of over 200 research assistants. These same participants also completed ESM self-reports during the same week in which they wore the EAR.

By combining the ESM and the EAR, we were able to address a lot of interesting questions about whether people know what they’re like in the moment, whether we can tell when people are feeling more or less happy in everyday life based on what they’re talking about in the moment, what university students are doing when they miss experience sampling reports, and what kinds of social experiences are most closely connected with well-being. These are questions that couldn’t really be answered without the combination of multiple EMA methods.

4. What has surprised you in doing this kind of research?

Dr. Sun: It’s funny—because almost all of my projects during graduate school used EAR data, I kind of habituated to it. It’s only when I give talks about these projects and see audience reactions that I remember just how cool this method is and how rare it is to measure actual behavior in the real world. Relatedly, I’m still amazed by participants’ willingness to let us literally eavesdrop on their lives. They had the opportunity to review and delete any files that they didn’t want us to hear, but they very rarely deleted any. It’s incredibly generous of participants to trust us with this level of access to their lives.

Dr. Boncoeur: Working individuals and their employers alike are extremely curious (and weary) about their sleep and behavior at work and beyond. Employees want to understand how they can sleep better and how it can help them function at their best at work. 

I was also pleasantly surprised at how much the participants in my studies enjoy responding to those daily surveys. I recall many participants expressing how cathartic it felt to reflect on themselves and the way they behave towards others at work.

5. What are some of the larger impacts you foresee or hope to see from this research?

Dr. Boncoeur: I hope that we approach sleep not as a homogeneous state that employees can forego but rather as a complex pattern of brain states that has important implications for employees and organizations alike. By having a better understanding of how sleep impacts how we experience work, we can have a more complete understanding of how to shape organizational life such that employees can be both healthier and better performers. 

Dr. Sun: In my previous ESM studies, my collaborators and I found that introverts seem to benefit less from acting extraverted and more from having deeper conversations (compared to extraverts). These were exploratory findings that need to be replicated, but the broader implication is that the causes of well-being might be different for different people. If we can systematically uncover these personalized well-being predictors, then we could  design more effective well-being interventions that are tailored to people’s personalities.

My research on morality is newer, but I hope that my results will show that morality doesn’t always come at a personal cost and it may actually be aligned with self-interest. Ultimately, nothing would make me happier than to see my research inspire people to be kinder and more generous to not only close others but also distant strangers. 

6. What are some questions that are pushing you forward right now?

Dr. Sun: The two major lines of work I’m pursuing right now are: 1) Are moral people happier? And 2) What are the causes and consequences of moral improvement? I’m excited to use ESM in the second line of work in particular. For example, we don’t know very much about how people become inspired to become more moral. I think a daily diary design would be a great way to measure sources of moral inspiration in everyday life.

Dr. Boncoeur: Expanding on my dissertation, I want to examine the phenomenon of sleep outside of more widely studied organizational contexts. I want to examine other questions about sleep and work; how does sleep impact, job seekers? How does REM sleep allow  employees to process emotional events at work? I am also curious about what factors lead individuals  to adopt behaviors that hinder their sleep hygiene.

7. For aspiring researchers, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Dr. Boncoeur: “It takes a village.” One of the best pieces of advice that I received was that the academic journey is a social profession. Early on, I was invited to build and maintain relationships with senior mentors as well as peer mentors.

"Surround yourselves with a community of support and take pleasure in the joy of this enriching profession!"

Dr. Sun:
I have a very clear memory of a conversation in 2014 where an undergraduate mentor of mine mentioned that bad collaborations can be one of the biggest sources of ill-being . I have been extremely lucky to have worked with amazing mentors and collaborators—but I also definitely did my research before deciding on who to work with. I think that would be my biggest piece of advice: Choose your advisors and collaborators carefully. Work with people who are good scientists and good people. If past collaborators or students aren’t ENTHUSIASTICALLY endorsing this person (e.g., only saying that “They’re ok”), that’s a red flag. And when you find a good collaborator, show your appreciation and don’t let them go!

In closing

With researchers of all disciplines looking toward innovative approaches to experience sampling research, it’s important now more than ever to learn from researchers at the cutting edge. So what are the main takeaways?

  • Takeaway #1: The best way to understand what people are really like is to study them in the context of their everyday lives. And one of the best ways to do this is through the Experience Sampling Method.
  • Takeaway #2: Experience Sampling Methodology is not a monolith but rather a family of methods designed to capture real-time, real-world information. Some of these methods include the Experience Sampling Method (ESM), Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), Ambulatory Assessments, Daily Diary, and the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR).
  • Takeaway #3: The idea of the rogue researcher is no longer relevant. Community and (the right) collaborators are fundamental to the longevity and success of a researcher’s career.

As the growth of experience sampling and experience sampling-related studies grow, what are some questions to consider. I’ll leave you with a few. What is the best technology stack for experience sampling research? How can I use experience sampling apps, wearables, passive sensing, and other technologies to get real-time, real-world data? How can ESM tools and frameworks accelerate my research? How do I know which approach best aligns with my research interests?

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