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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Phone app will record human behavior

Keith Hickman-Perfetti
Professor Matthais Mehl in his office on Friday 3 February, 2012. Mehl helped develop the iEar, a way to actually record what is going on in a patients real life. Keith Hickman-Perfetti/ Arizona Daily Wildcat

For Matthias Mehl, there is much more to life than what people tell you.

Mehl, an associate professor of psychology, developed the Electronically Activated Recorder, or iEAR, an app that serves as an acoustic diary to record the audible aspects of a person’s daily life. His interest in capturing spontaneous human behavior first began 10 years ago with an old-fashioned tape recorder, he said, and started as a way of collecting uncontrolled data from outside the laboratory.

“Psychologists need to go out in the real world,” Mehl said. “We all like to have a positive self-image, and our society does not provide honest, authentic, critical feedback.”

So much of what is observed in volunteer experiments are glorified responses meant to impress psychiatrists, Mehl explained. One of the purposes behind the iEAR app was to provide researchers with a device that tracks unbiased behavior.The other purpose behind the app, he said, was to develop a simple device that would serve as an honest judge for one’s own social behavior — someone who may think of themselves as chatty and bubbly may discover few traces of vocal interaction in public.

“Awareness is the first step to changing behavior,” said Mehl, adding that he believes in this app’s capability in determining a realistic sense of oneself. During an experiment using the iEAR technology, Mehl discovered that an observed patient suffering from cancer only spent about 5 percent of their daily interaction actually talking about their illness. This kind of denial could inflict worse wounds than the cancer itself, he said.

Available for free download since last August, the iEAR app itself is designed to allow easy control for the user to designate how long they want to record an audible bite and at what frequency throughout the day. Typically, the app would be set up to record 30 seconds of audio every 12 minutes of the day, with a blackout period assigned for when the user is sleeping.

“It’s for people curious about themselves,” Mehl said. The iEAR app isn’t intended only for intense psychological motives, he said — if someone wondered how many times they cursed in public on an average day, the multi-purpose app could measure moral judgment to clean up the language on campus.

Aside from verbal interactions, the iEAR app is also helpful in uncovering the sounds an individual surrounds themselves with. A person may go through an entire day without exposing themselves to any music, proposing a different set of analytical questions. Through his research with the iEAR app, Mehl has discovered that about two-thirds of the audible sounds he collected were of mostly silence so far.

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