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Crowdsourcing Empathetic Responses and Cognitive Reappraisals

22 May

At the Collective Intelligence conference in April, Rob Morris presented a paper that he and Rosalind Picard wrote, titled   “Crowdsourcing Collective Emotional Intelligence”.

It sounds crazy, I know, but they figured out how to structure micro-tasks on Amazon Mechanical Turk such that they elicited empathetic responses and cognitive reappraisals from anonymous workers with no training in psychotherapy.  For example, the system starts with a stressor text that a distressed user might enter, such as, “I’m going to flunk out of school and I’ll never get a job, I know it!”

Generating empathetic responses was fairly straightforward. They post the stressor comment and some guidelines for generating an empathetic response:

(1) address the user directly, (e.g., “Michael, I’m sorry to hear …”), (2) let the user know that his/her emotion makes sense, given the situation, and (3) share how you might feel if you were in a similar situation.

Turkers generate candidate responses and other Turkers vote on whether the candidate responses are appropriately empathetic. In an experiment, these responses were rated as much more empathetic than responses generated in response to the instruction to simply make the stressed user feel better about his/her situation (5.71 vs. 4.14 on a 7-point scale.)

Even more interestingly, the crowd could follow a structured process to generate cognitive reappraisals. They first ask some turkers to classify the stressor statement as having some cognition distortion or not. A distortion means, “logical fallacies within negative statements (Beck, 1979).” The example statement about flunking out never getting is a distortion  because there’s no way the speaker could know that s/he’ll never get a job in the future. On average, workers made this binary classification correctly 89% of the time. Using several workers to classify a single statement could increase accuracy.

When the worker marks a statement as a cognitive distortion, they are asked to give a “thought-based reappraisal” explaining the nature of the distortion. No complex training is needed for the workers: they are simply given some sample responses for inspiration.

When the work does not indicate a distortion, the worker is asked to give a “situation-based reappraisal” that suggests a different way of thinking about the situation. Workers are introduced to the concept and given a few examples of good and bad appraisals (the latter are needed to dissuade workers from offering advice or making unrealistic assumptions about the original speaker’s situation, two common errors they observed.) Some workers were asked to come up with their own reappraisal suggestions, while others were asked to try specific strategies such as finding a silver lining or taking a long-term perspective.)

Responses were limited to four sentences. In the experiment, reappraisals solicited in the way described above  were rated as better at offering a positive way to think about the situation (5.45 vs. 4.41) than when workers were asked to simply make the stressed user feel better about his/her situation.

Overall, this suggests that the crowd can, with little training, be a useful source of informational feedback and emotional support.

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Leave Me Alone!

29 Nov

Lots of people resonate with the idea of involving other people in behavior change efforts. But not everyone does. And they have some pretty good reasons.

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More Interesting Projects from Health 2.0

30 Sep

In the Behavior Change Category

Mobile adventure walks is an iphone app in beta. Someone authors a “walk”, which is like a tour with waypoints. You follow the yellow brick road on a map on your phone, using GPS. At each waypoint, there’s a multiple choice question that you can answer by looking around– forces you to actually go there, and to notice interesting things about your surroundings. Informally, they have already found that people who author tours then want to get their friends and family to take them, which gets them walking. It seems like a nice little tool to make taking walks a little more fun, for the crowd who aren’t yet “exercisers”. They’ve tried it in suburbs, with positive response, so you don’t need to have sites of great public interest at the waypoints for it to be fun. A related idea is scvngr, which has challenges that you can only do at specific locations, so you move around in order to get to the places where you can do them.

Keith Hutchings told me about his work on imoveyou.com (nee GetUpandMove.me). It was a platform for making microchallenges to your friends (I’ll do five pushups if you’ll dance to two songs), sort of a fitness version of the community-service oriented pledgebank.com. It appears to be down now, but perhaps I can analyze some of their old log data. Their founder Jen McCabe has now moved on to co-found HabitLabs, which has a new app bud.ge, in the works, which I might profile later.

HealthPer is another gamification of health site (games, points, rewards, challenges and competitions).

In the Judgment/Decision Making Category

CareCoach is an iPhone and Android app that helps you prepare for a doctor’s visit collaboratively with family members (preparing a list of questions to ask), and then takes an audio recording of the visit and lets you share it with friends. It also lets you listen in advance to recordings of strangers’ exam room visits, so that you can be better prepared for what to expect, and therefore process your own visit better. It sounds very promising.

In the Social Support Category

glu is a community for type 1 diabetes patients and their families, in closed beta right now. You identify yourself with a attributes and it tries to match you with similar others, if I recall correctly from the presentation a few days ago now.

Seen at Health 2.0: Health Applications With a Social Element

27 Sep

At the Health 2.0 Conference, I’ve been scouting for companies and apps that are using social elements to promote health and wellness. Here’s what I’ve found so far, on stage, in the exp, and from random conversations.

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Wanna Know How I Feel?

19 Sep

There are a bunch of apps that track your self-reported mood. (See a compilation)

One of them, Jon Cousins’ MoodScope, encourages people to share their moods with a few buddies. Buddies can check the web site, or be notified each time you record a new mood score.

Cousins tells a great story about how he was inspired to create the tool, based on his own experience. He was tracking his mood for a while. When he started publishing it to five buddies, he immediately stopped having ups and downs, and that continued with do dips for more than a year. Watch the video, skipping to around minute 6 or 7 if you don’t want the full runup.

Alexandra Carmichael has a slightly different story about the social effects of sharing mood data. In her case, it didn’t magically eliminate mood swings, but she reports a few other findings. First, after about a month her moods began to align with her friend’s. Second, sharing moods with the friend strengthened the friendship; now they are best friends. And even though it hasn’t magically made her happy all the time, she thinks that the sharing and reflecting together about their moods makes her accountable for taking care of herself and “reminds me of who I am and how I want to live”.

Sharing something as personal as our moods clearly puts us in a vulnerable position. But perhaps that’s why it’s so powerful.

Sharing with Strangers or Friends?

14 Sep

There are lots of potential benefits to sharing your health status and achievements with other people. When we interviewed participants in online health communities, mostly from SparkPeople, they identified potential benefits of sharing including emotional support, acountability, motivation, advice, and showing off (though they didn’t call it that).

But wouldn’t these benefits be amplified if you shared with people you actually know, rather than with strangers? Maybe, but not necessarily.

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Online Forums Increase Participation in Walking Program

13 Sep

My wife, Dr. Caroline Richardson, has for many years been developing and testing an Internet-mediated walking program, called Stepping Up to Health, with various populations. Participants get an uploading pedometer and interact with a website that graphs progress, automatically increments daily walking goals as people become more fit, and provides personally tailored tips. It’s been pretty effective. But it’s been purely an individual activity: there was no interaction among participants. We wondered if some interpersonal interaction might make it even more effective.

We started just by adding online forums, without deep integration of social features. Remarkably, in a randomized controlled trial, we found that just the forums were enough to cause more people to stick with the program. In the arm of the trial with no online community, 66% of people completed the 16-week program (meaning they uploaded steps for 20 days in the last month). In the arm with an online community, 79% completed. In other words, about a third of those who would have been expected to drop out didn’t. Continue reading