I am a social and personality psychologist with three broad areas of interest. First, I am interested in naturalistic person-environment interactions. What do people do over the course of a day? To what extent can people's personalities, gender, and cultural backgrounds account for the different lives they live? I address these questions by analyzing snippets of ambient sounds sampled from people's momentary environments. Second, I am interested in social interactions, coping, and health. My research looks at how psychological responses to upheaval unfold over time, and how social interactions facilitate coping. Finally, I am interested in developing alternative assessment methods that can complement psychology’s long-standing reliance on self-reports.
Naturalistic Person-Environment Interactions
How often have you laughed today? How much time have you spent on the phone? Or listening to music? Or talking to the opposite sex? These seemingly trivial questions are important because they illustrate how little is known about what people do in their ordinary lives. One might think that basic questions like these would form the bedrock of a science interested in human behavior. Primatologists begin their work by studying primate behavior. Shouldn't researchers interested in the human primate do the same? However, it looks like psychologists have generally skipped this crucial step. Broadly speaking, my first area of interest focuses on understanding what people do every day and why they do it.
Over the last 6 years, I have developed the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR), a naturalistic observation sampling tool for tracking people's (acoustic) social lives. The EAR is a modified digital voice recorder that comes on periodically for brief periods of time to record ambient sounds. Participants wear the EAR while going about their normal lives. The power of the EAR lies in collecting authentic real-life data. It is particularly suited for capturing aspects of a person's social life that normally go unnoticed (e.g., subtle interaction preferences, linguistic styles). Also, in recording acoustic traces of behavior, the EAR adopts the unique perspective of an unobtrusive observer (for more information about the EAR click here).
Given the scarcity of naturalistic observation studies, one aspect of my research has focused on exploring the basic psychometrics of everyday human behavior. In a series of "quantitative ethnographic" EAR projects, I have addressed descriptive questions such as how, where and with whom people spend their days. What stands out about the findings is how widely people differ in their ordinary lives. Some participants hardly talk, others hardly stop talking. Some are surrounded by nothing but silence, others are exposed to music virtually all the time. The fact that these differences are stable over time and across contexts suggests that a person’s social life is a powerful marker of individual differences.
The next step then has been to lend psychological meaning to these reliable differences in daily behavior by relating them to other known individual differences such as people's personalities, gender, and cultural backgrounds. The current generation of EAR studies seek to address the following questions: What is the role of people's social lives in interpersonal perception? That is, how are people's personalities expressed and perceived through the kinds of lives they lead? And, how do "contextual factors" such as people's gender and cultural backgrounds shape how aspects of their personalities are expressed and perceived through their everyday behavior?
Social Interactions, Coping, and Health
Traumata are the "atom smashers" of personality. Major life events frequently cause serious disruptions to people's lives. How do people's thoughts, feelings and behaviors change in the hours, days, and weeks after a trauma? How do these changes evolve over time? And how do they relate to whether an individual ultimately succeeds or fails at resolving the crisis? After decades of research on human coping, scientists are still struggling to answer these comparatively basic questions. Why? Because traumatic events are not easy to study. Many methodological standards such as experimental control, random assignment, and multiple pre-post assessments cannot easily be employed. Thus, most research is based on self-reports collected days, weeks, or sometimes even months after the actual events.
With the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR) we have a tool that allows researchers to objectively record people's responses to trauma over time. In a recent EAR study, for example, we tracked the social life of eleven students surrounding the September 11 Attacks. The ambient sounds captured by the EAR revealed that over the first 10 days after 9/11, participants gradually shifted their spontaneous conversations from group interactions to dyadic encounters. Also, the more individuals experienced this shift, the better their psychological adjustment tended to be at follow-up. These exploratory findings raise a number of interesting questions: Why did participants seek out one-on-one encounters in their attempts to cope with the event? What is it about dyadic interactions that facilitates coping? And, is this effect specific to collective upheavals or does it generalize to personal trauma?
EAR studies that track people's daily lives in the aftermath of being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease would be extremely useful for answering some of these questions. They could inform us when, with whom, and how people naturally talk about their disease and help us understand what kind of social interactions are "healthy" at different stages in the coping process.
Alternative Psychological Assessment Methods
People's self-views provide psychologically valuable information. However, often the use of questionnaires is driven more by efficiency than by conceptual reasons. My third area of interest revolves around assessment methods that go beyond self-reports. A central thread that runs through my research is the conviction that a more complete understanding of human behavior requires researchers to draw on information that falls beyond people's awareness. Limitations in what people can report about themselves initially inspired the development of the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR). The EAR was originally designed to capture subtle changes in daily life resulting from writing about traumatic experiences – changes that self-report based studies failed to find. Over the last few years, I have refined the EAR so that it is no longer just a tool for technology-curious researchers who are critical of self-reports but an established method for the unobtrusive observation of people in their natural environment.
I am also interested in the potentials of text analysis for psychological research. Working extensively with Pennebaker's Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), I realized that computerized word-count programs, despite their conceptual simplicity, provide highly valuable information about subtle idiosyncratic preferences in word choice. A number of recent studies have confirmed that the words people use to communicate what they have to say is psychologically far from trivial. People's habitual word choice has important implications for their reputation, social status, psychological well-being and even physical health. Based on the success of the English LIWC, Christina Brand, Andrea Horn and I have developed a German version of the program. The German LIWC dictionary is now available and has been tested for equivalence to the original version.
Finally, I have a strong interest in physiological measurement. In order to better understand the physiological implications of people's social lives, I combine the EAR method with physiological assessments such as ambulatory blood pressure and salivary cortisol.
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