Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Smartphones within Psychological Science

David A. Ellis

Smartphones within Psychological Science provides a comprehensive insight into where psychology has benefited, struggled and failed when it comes to understanding or using mobile technologies as part of the research process.   

Technological innovation has allowed psychologists to make exciting advances in almost every area of the discipline. Today, researchers across health, social, personality and cognitive psychology are using mobile technology to escape the laboratory and achieve levels of ecological validity that would have felt like science fiction 20 or 30 years ago. Thanks to a series of technological milestones, over two billion people across the world now carry small, but powerful computers.

This rapidly growing body of work stretches beyond what might be traditionally associated with psychology, but rightly reflects our natural ability to transcend disciplinary norms. For example, opportunities for tracking health and reducing societal inequalities with ethically informed approaches to data collection are enormous. Likewise, when working with computer scientists, understanding personality processes using digital traces captured from on-board smartphone sensors remains an exciting prospect.

Despite promise, it is impossible to escape the challenges that lie ahead. Even at face value, the lack of theoretical integration is considerable. Take a smartphone app that aims to support a physical activity intervention by letting people share their weight-loss progress while providing access to social support. Many could benefit, but these same interactions could lead to social comparisons that lower mood when comparing oneself to a body image that is unrealistic or potentially unhealthy.

But psychologically, is this anything new?  Are social comparisons that occur via an app different to what happens in a gym? How can traditional beahviour change theories account for individual differences when apps become highly customized?

These questions are frequently considered by different groups of researchers, using different theoretical frameworks, despite significant overlaps in application. Given the complex nature of technology interactions and vast quantities of digital data that can be harvested from smartphones or related services, psychologists may have to take a step back and engage with more descriptive approaches to better understand complex systems before proposing new theory or theoretical integration.

Different methodologies also make for a challenging landscape. Research that considers how smartphones might limit cognitive functioning for example, appears to be separated from groups who have developed apps that can accurately test cognitive abilities remotely from millions of participants across the world.

Psychology rightly remains interested in how mass adopted technology impacts people and society. Unfortunately, rather than productively understanding the technology first, the discipline has a track record of fixating on technological ‘addiction’ or other unsubstantiated harms. Research then struggles to be involved productively when the same technology becomes a key component of everyday life. This history is largely forgotten as many technologies eventually become part of our research toolkit. This cycle then repeats.

The internet, video games, and social media are all at various stages of that cycle.

The smartphone is no exception.

Of course, genuine harms are very real and include issues that pertain to unequal access, cyberbullying, misinformation and security vulnerabilities, but these are not specific to smartphones. They are universal and as relevant to software developers as they are to behavioural scientists. Stretching our interdisciplinary legs even further, psychology could be in a much stronger position to contribute in the future provided it grapples with challenges head on.

Drawing on the latest available evidence, Smartphones within Psychological Science documents why and how psychologists are using smartphones. While much of this research can generate new lines of enquiry across behavioural science, psychology is in danger of having less to contribute in the future if its current trajectory does not change.

Like various ‘crises’ within psychological science, smartphones are not going to disappear overnight. They will evolve or be replaced by something new. Psychological science, in turn, must adapt if it is to remain relevant in the digital age.

About The Author

David A. Ellis

David A. Ellis, Information, Decisions and Operations, School of Management University of Bath David A. Ellis is an Associate Professor of Information Systems at the University of...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!