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Smartphones could revolutionise psychological testing

Posted on 23 Apr 2013 in iPhone | Comments Off on Smartphones could revolutionise psychological testing

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This is a guest post from David Crane, who is responsible for a smoking cessation app with a difference.

I’m interested in change. Attempted lots of it myself with varying degrees of success – by which I mean I’ve often failed. Lately I’ve found comfort in the idea there may be an evolutionary reason for the stickiness of habits. Studies of rats show that with the right trigger a habit can reignite years after laying dormant (a cat evasion strategy is not something you want to learn new every time). Doesn’t just apply to rats either, any relapsed smoker will tell you the same.

Smoking is an especially hard habit to break, but then anything repeated up to twenty times a day for decades is bound to plough a pretty deep trough. And the benefits it brings… Okay, they’re not actually benefits, but they don’t half seem so at the time. We think smoking gets us through or makes better huge parts of our lives. We smoke to relax, whilst reading, after food and when it’s all gone horribly wrong. What’s more, smoking brings immediate and perceptible benefits; whereas the benefits of not smoking are mostly intangible, pretty abstract and often quite a long way off.

One thing that could help is to give quitters a greater sense of progress. The belief we’re moving forward, that things are getting better, that we’ve achieved something, usually results in us doing more of the same. A sense of progress creates a positive feedback loop where success breeds more success. It’s a technique game designers have found highly effective at getting us to face greater challenges.

The problem is you don’t get much of a sense of progress when you’re giving up smoking. Oh you feel like a champ for withstanding the first few days. Then your food tastes better, your sense of smell improves and you

can manage to get up stairs without scaring the neighbours. But as with anything else, what’s new soon becomes normal. You stop noticing the benefits of not smoking way before you forget how nice it was.

To help smokers develop more of a non-smoking habit the (and I’m not just saying this because it’s their blog but…) the brilliant Greg and Ed at Portable Pixels have just collaborated with me to create an app. It’s called Smoke Free and it works in two ways: First it provides indicators that show the length of time without smoking, the number of cigarettes not smoked, the amount of money saved and how various health measures have improved. These update in real time and are designed using a clever reverse hourglass mechanism that instead of emptying, fills up the weeks, days and hours smoke free.

In addition, downloaders are randomly divided into two groups, one of which gets daily missions designed to help them resist cravings, fall out of love with smoking and feel proud about being a non-smoker. These missions are intended both to give people something to do, and also to feel a sense of accomplishment about.

This is an experiment for my Psychology master’s thesis and so there’s a scientific purpose to the app. I’ll be asking people whether they’re still smoke free three months into their quit and will see if that corresponds to measures of their smoking dependency, willpower, age, education, length of time smoking and other factors besides.

I’m also asking people to complete a daily diary of their cravings in
the hope we might learn if there are patterns that can be detected and perhaps even predictions of the craving path a future quitter might expect. We may be able to correlate the trajectory of cravings with personal factors, could learn whether cravings die down only to re-emerge at certain times and might understand whether the severity of cravings relates positively or negatively to a successful quit attempt.

In developing the app I’ve come to appreciate how smartphones could revolutionise psychological testing. The fact we keep them with us all the time means we can record a feeling, thought or action much closer to the moment. Then there’s the sheer usability of the thing and its ability to make giving data a pleasure. Okay, maybe not a pleasure, but at least not so much of a chore. Huge numbers of people have one – more or less every demographic is covered in the West. Create the right app and it’s possible to find a large and regularly refreshed group of participants for an experiment.

Smoke Free is currently being downloaded more than 4,000 times a month. Each month a statistically significant new cohort of people is formed that we can ask questions of or try new interventions with. This, like other apps of its kind, has the potential to become a platform, one all kinds of smoking cessation experts can use to test their ideas. And in so doing, we might be able to accelerate the process by which we understand how best to help people rid themselves of this killer habit.