Feldman Barrett is looking for happiness (and sadness)
300 Boston College students have been subjects in an experiment
that is likely to influence not only the way psychologists understand
human emotions but also the way they go about studying them. Much
of the data from the research, conducted by Associate Professor
Lisa Feldman Barrett, comes from the students who carry Palmtop
computers everywhere they go. When the Palmtops beep--which usually
happens about 10 times a day--the first question that appears on
the screen is "Are you having an emotion?" This is followed by a
random series of queries, starting with, say, "How happy are you
right now?" and inquiring into any of 28 additional emotions. The
students have agreed to be on call to answer questions about their
emotional states 15 hours a day, for four weeks at a time. The project
is supported by a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
Psychologists historically have had a complicated relationship with
emotion studies. Though the first psychology textbook--William James's
The Principles of Psychology (1890)--contained a chapter
on emotion, early psychologists preferred to focus on behavior.
There were few studies of emotion before the 1970s and no strong
surge of interest until the 1990s. The challenge has been one of
measurement: how do you take an individual's subjective state and
present it in a way that permits comparisons? Barrett has devised
ways to do so that are new to the discipline.
"I'm not really interested at any given instant in whether someone
is happy or sad," says Barrett of her research. "What I'm interested
to know is, if they're happy, do they distinguish between, say,
happy, enthusiastic, and calm--or do they lump it all together as
feeling good?" The term she has come up with for an individual's
ability to make fine distinctions among emotions is "granularity."
("In psychology," she chuckles, "you have to have cool terms.")
Someone who reports feeling sad whenever feeling angry will have
a lower granularity rating than a person whose anger is accompanied
sometimes by sadness and other times by, say, frustration.
Psychologists have traditionally thought of emotions as discrete
phenomena (anger is distinct from sadness, which is distinct from
fear, for instance). Barrett posits that emotions start as elementary
good or bad feelings, which become refined by what a person knows
from experience, by states of physical arousal, and by cognitive
capacity. In her experiment, she uses the Palmtop data to assign
a granularity rating to each subject. Then, in their weekly visits
to the lab, she asks subjects to perform tasks that will help her
to determine whether and to what extent granularity ratings correlate
with other characteristics.
key to the success of the study is the Palmtop. "If you ask
people, 'Hey, can you tell the difference between your emotional
states?'" says Barrett, "the answer you're likely to get
is a theory rather than what they actually do." The Palmtops'
questions, which require a response within two minutes, provide
data that is reflexive, subtle, and more likely valid. According
to Yale University's Peter Salovey, researchers have been doing
so-called experience sampling, relying on paper and pen reports
by subjects outside the laboratory, for about 15 years. Barrett,
he says, "is one of the first to apply the approach to emotions,
and certainly the first to do it on a Palmtop. In the field of emotions
today, there may be no more sophisticated methodologist and measurement
expert." Barrett plans to submit the first results of her work
for publication this summer.
The software that makes Barrett's study possible was developed by
her husband, Daniel Barrett, a computer scientist. Aided by a supplementary
grant from the National Science Foundation, the couple has made
their Experience Sampling Program, called ESP, available at Barrett's
Web site http://www2.bc.edu/~barretli/esp
for free. "Experience sampling is very time-consuming and very
expensive," says Barrett. "I would go to conferences and
realize that people were having a lot of trouble with it--you know,
not everyone has a computer programmer at their disposal."
Professor Salovey describes the Barretts' gesture as "wonderfully
generous. Often when people develop something like this they prefer
to sell it." ESP, he says, will make it easier for other emotion
researchers "to be at the cutting edge."
Anna Marie Murphy
Photos: Barett: Portable computers give psychologists human emotions
data they can trust. Gary Wayne Gilbert