A new research approach has improved the way in which psychologists study people.
The emerging strategy is to follow people over time, rather than a quick assessment of a large group of individuals.
A new study describes how psychologists can use this new approach to learn about the different ways that people’s minds work. Most psychology research is done by asking a big group of people the same questions at the same time.
“So we might get a bunch of Psych 101 undergrads, administer a survey, ask about how much they use alcohol and what their mood is, and just look and see, is there a relationship between those two variables,” said Dr. Daniel J. Bauer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the author of the article.
Over time the experts have learned that a one-time survey can only get you so far.
For example, it might find that sad people drink more, but it can’t tell us whether people drink more at times when they are unhappy, whether the consequences of drinking instead result in a depressed mood, or whether the relationship between mood and alcohol use is stronger for some people than others.
The new approach of following people over time helps to determine the effects of mood and stress. For example, an individual may be given an electronic device to record blood pressure and stress several times a day, or they may be asked to log on to a website every night to answer a survey.
In one case, Bauer’s colleague, Dr. Andrea Hussong, asked adolescents to complete daily diaries with ratings of their mood and alcohol use over 21 days. The data showed that the relationship between mood and alcohol use is not the same for everyone.
Adolescents with behavioral problems drink more in general, irrespective of mood, but only adolescents without behavioral problems drink more often when feeling depressed.
A caveat to this type of research is that investigators must use relatively sophisticated mathematical models. In the new paper, Bauer pointed to statistical methods that can show how variables relate differently for different people.
The point of all of this is to help people, Bauer said. For example, if psychologists discover that certain kinds of people are more likely to drink when depressed, it would be possible to help those people early.
“Ultimately, the idea would be to identify people who might be more at risk and try to help them,” he said.