The Experience Sampling Method (ESM) in the Social Sciences

Dr. Louis Tay
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The Experience Sampling Method (ESM) was introduced in the late 1970s by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues [1]. It is a systematic approach for capturing experiences and activities of individuals in their ecological context. The ESM was groundbreaking. Social scientists have since recognized the importance of the ESM because much of what makes scientific principles generalizable and applicable is through examining and evaluating it in our day-to-day lives.

Tremendous Growth.

Not surprisingly then, there has been a surge of Experience Sampling methodology and design in the social sciences. A quick search on Google Scholar on this topic (“experience sampling”) reveals an exponential increase in the numbers of academic sources referencing ESM. There has been roughly a five-to-six fold increase in the numbers of academic sources using ESM every decade.

1980-1990: 131,000 results

1991-2000: 373,000 results

2001-2010: 741,000 results

2011-2020: 1,340,000 results

Research Applications.

What types of research questions can be examined using ESM and extensions of ESM? The following represents only a small but fascinating sample of research topics that are now enabled by ESM.

  • Education: There is a growing interest in understanding student experiences in and outside of the classroom. ESM can serve to understand flipped classroom experiences, along with daily activities experienced at home, etc.
  • Clinical: Researchers seek to track daily feelings/behaviors and understand the situational triggers that may affect feelings/behaviors.
  • Marketing: Researchers wish to determine how individuals interact with the product even after the point of purchase over multiple occasions.
  • Organizations: Researchers are keen on examining mean levels and variability of emotions of employees as it can have an impact on job performance and motivation.
  • Politics: Researchers can be enabled to determine how political attitudes and choices change over time in an election cycle.
Practical Applications.

Technology-enabled ESM is exciting because real-time data collection can also be used to make practical key decisions within an educational institution, political campaign, or an organization. Further, a community data platform can serve to provide feedback to respondents in a timely fashion. Here are some potential applications.

  • Education: As educators have become increasingly interested in formative assessments, the ESM can be also harnessed to provide quick and immediate feedback to students to build skills, habits, and character.
  • Clinical: Through ESM technology, clinicians can not only track the feelings and behaviors of clients but also provide insights and feedback to clients throughout the week.
  • Marketing: Instead of bringing product testers on-site which is expensive, companies can test products in-situ and capture how clients interact with products over time in their environment.
  • Organizations: Human resources and managers can obtain a regular pulse of their employees on different dimensions such as engagement, stress, burnout; these can also be examined as a function of new company policies.
  • Politics: The ESM can not only examine how voters react to political speeches but track intentions and behaviors (other social media mobile apps) over time.
New Frontiers.

Past ESM used pen-and-paper methods; these provide important information. However, with ExpiWell’s data collection tool, we are now providing a seamless integration between web (survey creators) and mobile (participants) apps. Real-time data collection enables us to gather new insights, enhance interactivity between survey creators and participants, and promote a more rigorous approach to science and practice. There are new frontiers of technology-enabled ESM that I am pursuing with ExpiWell that will open new doors for research and practice.

  • Including multimedia data (voice, video, location) into our research designs and analysis
  • Using location-enabled surveys
  • Locating participants that fit a demographic criterion
  • Integrating with health information (e.g., fitbit)
  • Ongoing push notifications from survey creators
  • Proprietary HR tools for business

I hope that more social scientists will see the value of ESM and join ExpiWell in using and refining this exciting method. Please feel free to contact me at should you be interested or have any questions.


1. Csikszentmihalyi M, Larson R, Prescott S: The ecology of adolescent activity and experience. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 1977, 6:281-294.

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