Aug. 12, 2013 at 3:26 PM ET
When Jane Goodall did her famous studies of chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, in Tanzania, she spent hours unobtrusively watching the primates as they fished for termites, tickled each other and waged war. Her rich, detailed observations provided astonishing insights into the animals' diets, social lives and basic natures.
Yet when it comes to humans, most psychology studies are a far cry from Goodall's naturalistic observations.
"In the end, psychologists hardly ever observe human behavior — what they mostly do is give them questionnaires," said Matthias Mehl, a University of Arizona psychologist .
Mehl says he wants to change that.
He and his colleagues have developed a tool to better study humans in their natural environment. It started off as a clunky cassette recorder, but has become a sleek iPhone app called iEAR that unobtrusively records 30-second snippets of people's conversations throughout the day.
People consent to being recorded, and can delete any snippets they find objectionable, then send the recordings to psychologists studying human interactions. (The iEAR app is free and available to anyone who wants to record their own conversations; only people who are in contact with researchers send in their data for analysis.)
Most people quickly forget about the recordings in their day-to-day moments, and few people delete any of their conversations, Mehl said.
The new method has allowed researchers to get an unprecedented look at how people act in real life.
Some of the researchers' findings have been surprising.
For instance, in a 2007 Science study, the team rebutted the notion that women talk three times as much as men, which neuroscientist Louann Brizendine claimed in her best-selling book "The Female Brain" (Harmony, 2007). In fact, both sexes gab the same amount.
Even more surprising was the sheer variability between people.
"The least talkative person was talking 600 or 700 words," Mehl said. "The most talkative individual talked 47,000."
The app can also reveal differences between self-reports and actual behavior.
For instance, Mehl and colleagues are testing whether a six-week compassion meditation course actually makes people more compassionate, or just makes them think they are more compassionate. [7 Reasons You Should Meditate]
"In the end, the real gold standard for whether the intervention works is not whether people think it works: It's how often people argue, how often people swear, how often people smile and say thank you," Mehl said. "That's the behavior that actually spreads out into the world. That's what makes the world a better place."
Ties to health
The iEAR can also be used to probe how behavior and a person's environment are tied to health.
Rich Slachter, a health and social psychologist at Wayne State University in Michigan, is studying how interpersonal dynamics affect asthma symptoms.
The team has found that children from high-conflict homes tend to wheeze more. They have also shown that more conflict at home changes the levels of stress hormone in preschoolers.
The iEAR provides insight into people's lives that they don't have access to, Slachter said.
For instance, it may not be shocking that children from high-conflict homes tend to have poorer health, Slachter said. But most children have a tough time knowing whether their family situation is unusually stressful.
"When you ask somebody, how much conflict is there in your home, it's tough to answer that sometimes because what's your reference group, compared to whom?" Slachter told LiveScience.
The tool's most unique function may be that it provides a way for normal people to turn the microscope around, and track themselves.
"I've spent days and days recording myself," Mehl said.
Of course, there are potential dangers: It's all too easy to imagine using the iEAR to resolve that pesky dispute over who last washed the dishes or who really started that knock-down drag-out fight. And friends and family members may not relish becoming unwitting participants in a personal insight experiment.
Nevertheless, the iEAR provides a powerful way to see what we are really like on a day-to-day basis: whether a person comes off as ditzy or rude, whiny or people-pleasing, Mehl said.
"There is a lot of potential for self-insight. Our self-concept is so fuzzy, and doesn’t really map onto our behavior," Mehl said.
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