Psychological research requires a lot of testing, and a lot of surveys. When relying on surveys, there is a necessary assumption that the subject can be trusted, and that they are answering factually rather than guessing or feeling. Much of the reporting around depression is based entirely on these surveys. Data, however, might know you better than you know yourself. Big data means the field of psychology can work faster, more efficiently, and even uncover things they never before thought possible.

There are four major areas that allow researchers to collect data: existing datasets, social media, smart phones, and wearable devices. This means that they can use reliable information and can also develop apps to help users better understand themselves. The University of Cambridge’s Apply Magic Sauce leverages data to analyze social media pages to tell you about yourself—or a company or researching body about a group of people. Similarly, IBM’s Personality Insights can tell you about yourself by analyzing a piece of text. It’s worth noting that both of these have distinct uses in marketing or research, and are only currently available to the general public as a side note.

The different uses of datasets for psychology will yield some very different results: the IBM analysis will likely make you feel fuzzy inside. Companies and apps aren’t quite ready to tell users horrible, dark things about themselves. Even analyzing the letter to the American people from Osama bin Laden yields rather fluffy results. For example, “You are confident and heartfelt,” and “your choices are driven by a desire for connectedness.” Nonetheless, the program is kind of fun, and a step in a new direction of personality analysis and understanding. Currently, this kind of data is more often leveraged by marketers and researchers. Hopefully, consumers will see it affect their own lives more and more often.

Perhaps one of the best examples is, in fact, depression. The ability of big data and gathering data from connected gear and apps is a big deal for researchers and psychologists. Treating a person with depression used to mean endless surveys, maybe every week. “Do you feel happy today?” “Did you feel anxious yesterday?” This leads to several problems: firstly, the subject doesn’t necessarily know how to report, understand, or quantify their own feelings; secondly, it ignores the fact that depression, and other states, don’t remain in stasis or always appear with the same face; lastly, it really simplifies what is going on in a person’s mind or life. The chance to access and analyze data from social media, smart phones or wearables, and even compare that to massive data sets could lead to an entirely new mode of interaction. Certain social media behaviors have even been linked to postpartum depression with great accuracy.

What is really happening is the generation of amazing new algorithms. These algorithms take into account much more than just status updates and “about me” texts. They look at friends lists and draw correlations and see density—how strong a real social network really is. They see information about when the user actually joined the world of social media, how often they post, and pages liked or apps used. These details can be turned into very specific information about a person’s personality.

There are, of course, some much more practical results. Namely, using data on behavior and psychology to create better search results. By mining through logs of data, researchers can create far better algorithms that would, in theory, make users lives easier on a daily basis. Some suspect that individual data will be gathered and used to create personalized algorithms. Meaning, when two people search for the same set of words, they will yield different results, because the engine understands the mind of the user. A much better example involves better combining of information. For example, if users search “US Open” in the late spring, they are likely referring to golf; searching in summer, on the other hand, likely refers to tennis. It is not, however, quite clear how useful these algorithms are. While search engines are constantly updating and optimizing, users may find themselves fighting to search for certain topics when the search engine naturally assumes it knows what a user wants. The only way forward is bigger, better data.

Big data used in research is also yielding interesting new information, and sometimes proving old assumptions wrong. Big data helped Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science researchers debunk some assumptions about the differences between male and female brains. Namely, that the females have larger hippocampi, which consolidates new memories and connects emotions to the senses. They did this by consolidating the findings between 76 published papers, spanning over 6,000 test subjects. It seems bigger is better when it comes to testing pools. This also highlights two of the major advantages big data offers for psychology research: more efficient exploration of data, and cross-validated exploration of data. Researchers can see more, faster, and even see what’s outside of their own testing bubble.

Similarly, Tal Yarkoni, of the University of Texas, recently developed the program Neurosynth, which synthesized over 9,000 neuroimaging studies. The data included spans 300,000 brain activations. The huge amount of data helps guide researchers toward a subject quickly and accurately. Testing has shown that the program works nearly as well as manual research, which requires several (perhaps hundreds) hours more work. Big data can help researchers soar through information that might otherwise take a short eternity to sift through.

Marketing is one of the most obvious and popular uses of big data. The fact that researchers and psychologists can make use of that same data and do something a little more impactful with it, is a great, and distinctly hopeful, opportunity. While big money is still driving big data to marketing and advertising purposes, those styles of psychological analysis will, and do, open doors for ordinary consumers, as well. If a smart phone can tell where you are and how active you are, what’s to stop it from doing more. All of that data can converge and let you know, at least objectively, how happy or well you might be. It can lead to better self-understanding, and, of course, a lot of intriguing new apps.

image credit: Zoe

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