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Smartphones Could Predict Impulsive Behaviours

The smartphone is fast becoming a necessity of daily life, researchers are now taking advantage of the fact that the majority of people are now in constant contact with these devices to develop new ways of carrying out research on human behavior.

The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, Cornell Tech, and Sage Bionetworks have announced the launch of a new study that will examine the use of a smartphone application to identify and understand impulsivity in daily life.

The team intends to develop additional apps, using the information gained during this study, to support people looking to change impulsive behaviors and improve their ability to resist unhealthy temptations.

Impulsiveness is the inability to resist acting on immediate temptations despite the long-term consequences. Examples of impulsive behaviors are unhealthy actions such as overeating, drinking to excess and gambling. Impulsive acts over time can lead to negative conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, substance abuse, gambling problems and suicidal behaviors. Identifying the triggers behind impulsiveness can help people take control of their actions and this may decrease the potential for developing associated conditions.

Frederick Muench, PhD, Feinstein Institute associate professor and director of Northwell Health’s Digital Health Interventions in Psychiatry, and Deborah Estrin, PhD, professor of Computer Science at Cornell Tech, have collaborated to develop this study to assess whether a smartphone app can be used to accurately measure a person’s level of impulsivity in different situations. Because impulse control is affected by specific time of day, physical activity, and social interactions, the app will gather data at those times. The researchers will use this data to evaluate which of these factors influence impulse control the most.

“This is the first study in which the capabilities of the smartphone are being used to understand impulsivity in different settings,” said Dr. Muench. “Having a better understanding of what drives this behavior will help us design tools that health professionals and their patients can use to regulate impulsive behaviors in trigger settings.”

Participants will engage in a range of tasks and self-assessment tests within the application. For example, participants are asked to virtually “inflate” a balloon as much as they can without making it pop in order to receive a cash prize. How people handle this challenge (i.e., will they be conservative with how much they inflate the balloon or will they be risky by getting it to the point of almost popping) will provide data to help understand risk taking under different conditions.

This study of the app has been named the Digital Marshmallow Test, building off of the original “marshmallow test,” invented by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues in the 1960s. It measured willpower by testing preschoolers who were given the option of either eating one mini-marshmallow right away or waiting 15 minutes to get two mini-marshmallows.

“As most individuals are only within arm’s reach of their smartphones, it is a great tool to profile impulsive behavior and see what daily factors influence it,” said Dr. Estrin. “With the app being accessible from any smartphone, more participants can be enrolled, providing our scientific team with access to more data than ever conceived before cell phones.”

In addition to the versions that will be developed for the general public, the team also plans to make a version of the app where researchers studying impulsive behaviors can use the tasks and tests during in-person visits as part of their existing protocols.

Support for this research was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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