New smartphone-based study to build on famous 'Marshmallow Test'

By Jonah Comstock

In the 1970s at Stanford University, psychology researchers put children in a room with marshmallows to test their impulse control. The study, and its follow-up studies, are considered landmark explorations of the ideas of willpower and impulsivity. Now a group of researchers from The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, Cornell Tech, and Sage Bionetworks -- supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation -- are launching a "Digital Marshmallow Test", a smartphone-based study of impulsivity in adults.

"Impulsivity is really one of the underlying moderators of poor health outcomes, from the perspective of the onset of problems, obesity, pathological gambling, substance abuse, smoking, suicidal behaviors," Dr. Frederick Muench, director of Northwell Health’s Digital Health Interventions in Psychiatry, told MobiHealthNews. "Impulsivity and poor self-regulation is the number one symptom across all disorders in the diagnostic statistical manual. Looking at impulsivity in its own right has never really been done in a large-scale mobile study. Not only is it a predictor of whether someone is going to have a health-related problem, it’s a predictor of whether they’re going to get better."

Muench, Cornell Professor of Computer Science Deborah Estrin, and Cornell Senior Researcher in Residence JP Pollak collaborated on the study, which will launch simultaneously on Apple's ResearchKit and the Android analogue ResearchStack, developed by Estrin and Pollak. Muench stressed that what separates this study from the original marshmallow test is that the original test was about "trait impulsivity", a person's inherent tendency toward impulsive behavior. The smartphone allows for the study of impulsivity in context, not just among different people but at different times of the day, different amounts of sleep, and other contextual factors.

"Some of the work that we do is to collect as much data as individuals are comfortable sharing with us and try to put together these individual models, what are the specific contexts, specific triggers that lead to an individual being more compulsive," Pollak said. "These are the kind of models that don’t work on a population level but really work on an individual level."

The study isn't available for download just yet. Researchers are starting with a smaller pilot group of 120 individuals. This initial group will give researchers data about their moods, passively collected phone data, and even genomic data. But they'll also participate in various validated game-like tasks to gauge impulsivity.

"Once that study’s done we’re going to do an open ResearchKit study," Muench said. "We’re hoping to get as many people as we can, and one of the ways we’ll reward them is that we’ll have enough normative data that we can give people feedback on their scores in different contexts and situations and compare to an age and gender reference group."

The study continues to push the boundaries of the ResearchKit and ResearchStack infrastructures (collectively referred to as "ResearchSuite"). While most of the studies so far have focused on collecting physiological data, this study will demonstrate the potential of the technology for a psychological study.

In other ResearchSuite news, Mole Mapper, one of the first smartphone apps to use the ResearchStack infrastructure, made its data available to researchers today. Data from 2,798 users who uploaded pictures of their moles will be available to researchers via Sage Bionetwork's community research platform Synapse.