Category Archives: Psychology and Tech
There’s an old urban legend around the rivalry the existed in pop music between the Beatles and the Beach Boys in the 60’s. In 1966 the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, which combined experimental approaches to music and the traditional harmonies and lyrics the Beach Boys were known for. The results included some classic pop songs, like “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and were said to be inspired in part by Brian Wilson’s appreciation for the Beatles Rubber Soul album. In 1967, they were working on Smile, an album that they thought would be even more revolutionary in its musical art than Pet Sounds. In the midst of recording, they were given an early preview of the Beatles upcoming album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And when they heard it, they were blown away. Here were the Beatles, creating the very album they aspired to, while their work seemed to pale in comparison. The members of the Beach Boys were overwhelmed, particularly lead songwriter Brian Wilson, who had been battling mental health and substance abuse issues for years. This moment exacerbated his already existing depression and recording on Smile began to fall apart.
I thought about this story often as I had the opportunity to review “Should I Break Up With My Boyfriend”, a new mobile app for iOS devices by developer Sarah Gray and designer Daniel Stanford*. I have been working for the last 6 months on the creation of CohesiveSelf®, a mobile application designed to help individuals track their mood and access tools to help improve their emotional states. CohesiveSelf® includes audio files for relaxation, deep breathing, and guided imagery to help individuals manage difficult points in their life.
As for Should I Break Up With My Boyfriend, its premise is simple: rate your boyfriend over a 14 day period on a five point scale from “Totally Over Him” to “Totally in Love”. The app guides you to set up a daily reminder using iOS push notification and also allows you to write a brief note describing the details around your feelings for that day. While you can add ratings at any time in addition to the ones you scheduled, your ratings stay hidden until the full period of “boyfriend evaluation” is complete. This aspect is ingenious, as previous ratings are then less likely to influence each additional rating. This creates a laser focus on each moment within the relationship, assuring that each individual instance of rating stands on its own and is unaffected by knowledge or expectations related to previous entries.
At the end of the 14 day period of collecting ratings, you are given advice based on both the average of your ratings as well as the standard deviation. This use of standard deviation is key to the effectiveness of the advice, because it helps identify the “swings” between the daily ratings. As a result, in addition to being able to view a final average rating, the user can assess whether they are willing to endure the relationship’s “craters” in order to enjoy its “peaks”.
In addition to this analysis and advice, Should I Break Up With My Boyfriend also offers something else: fun, playful, and engaging design. The visual and audio elements are incredibly cool, and include an adorable, fuzzy female creature whose expressions and body language change with each range of ratings. The “Totally Over Him” rating, for example, is presented through dark storm clouds and lightning, a sad little chime, and a clap of thunder. As a psychologist specializing in adolescents and young adults, the appeal to young women in this demographic is quickly evident. And as you continue to use the app, you realize that what it offers is a special mix of real analytic tracking of emotions in a playful and engaging wrapper.
Which brings me back to CohesiveSelf® and my own “Sgt. Pepper” moment. One question lingered after experiencing Should I Break Up With My Boyfriend: in my interest in creating an app with great utility, did I put enough emphasis on fun and ease of use? Did I remember that one of the best parts of the mobile experience is the ability to have fun? Why else would apps like Angry Birds and Words With Friends be multi-million sellers? However, instead of being discouraged by the genius of Should I Break Up With My Boyfriend, I resolved to make sure that being witness to fun, engaging design creates inspiration that drives ongoing development and moves CohesiveSelf® (which debuted on the iOS App Store last week!) onward and upward.
As for Smile, Brian Wilson completed his original vision for it in 2004, over 38 years after recording began and despite a lifetime battling mental health and substance abuse issues. And if that’s not inspirational, I don’t know what is.
* – In the interest of full disclosure Sarah Gray and her partner at MercuryApp, Corey Haines served as technical advisors to me through early stage software development.
Five Skills Psychologists Bring to Startups: Reactions from Startup Weekend Rochester
This weekend I had the opportunity to engage in a local startup weekend event here in Rochester. Startup Weekend seeks to bring together individuals from design, technical, and business backgrounds to bring an idea from a pitch to a business startup in a 54 hour period. Going through my experience as a non-technical founder of a tech startup in CohesiveSelf, I was very interested in connecting with other entrepreneurs and talented designers and software developers. Also, I had an idea I wanted to pitch around combining psychological skills for improving executive functions with mechanics related to video game development (gamification) in a way that could improve academic outcomes for middle and high school students.
After introductions and speeches, Friday night really got started with 60 second pitches and voting that was designed to consolidate the high number of ideas to 12 workable business ideas. And the reception to my idea was . . . somewhere between lukewarm and ice freezing cold. My idea was not chosen. Quickly, the 12 core business ideas fell into place and team leaders talked with participants about their needs from design, technical, and business perspectives. They sold their idea some more and talked about what they wanted out of team members. So what did I have to offer as a psychologist? I love tech but certainly don’t know how to code. I appreciate design but don’t know my way around the adobe suite of products. Where did I fit?
I began to think back to my experiences on my pre-doctoral internship. For clinical psychologists, our internship is the equivalent of an MD’s residency. You have finished coursework and have had multiple placements in agency-based settings to hone your skills in therapy and assessment. As you complete or are close to completing your dissertation you go through a detailed application and match process for a year long placement. In internship, you work long hours in an applied setting, completely immersed in the field. In my internship, I had the pleasure of being supervised by Dr. Jack Teitsma. Dr. Teitsma served as the director of our training and engaged us in a curriculum designed to utilize elements from the business world to help us see our jobs as part of a larger whole beyond mental health. We read classics like The E-Myth, Good to Great, and Seven Keys to Disney’s Success to get us thinking about how organizations work, how to create successful systems that are not person-dependent, and the application of ideas around customer engagement. Dr. Teitsma felt strongly that the field of psychology was changing rapidly, and we needed to change along with it. Our traditional roles of psychotherapy and assessment were becoming crowded with the presence of multiple disciplines including social work, art therapy, counseling, and school psychology. He was a firm believer that the value proposition for future psychologists was to be an “applied problem solver” – someone that can help individuals, agencies, and organizations address challenges they face. And with our background and ability to understand human behavior and emotional and mental health, psychologists are perfectly trained to solve the difficulties presented by these challenges.
So what were the opportunities offered for psychologists who strive to be “applied problem solvers” at Startup Weekend Rochester?
1. Psychologists can help with finding a common language—-For our team, Syracuse student Ross Lazerowitz had the initial vision – SkillsTrader — a website where individuals can link up and connect with others to trade a skill they have in exchange for a skill they want to develop. As the psychologist on the team, I began to initiate the creation of user stories, brief synopses of how an individual user would come to use this new business idea of SkillsTrader. Given such a short timeframe in which to come up with a basic working product (MVP) with market validation and a business model, the team needed to quickly be on the same page as to what exactly we were going to create. These initial stories helped us to start off on the same page and build excitement about the potential of the idea. It was based on these initial stories that we began to plot our course through the development, design, and presentation of the idea. And this was just the beginning. Periodically, I would bring our disparate elements of development, design, and research together to get consensus around key decisions to keep us moving forward and organization around tasks completion necessary to be ready for our final presentation at the end of the 54 hour event.
2. Psychologists can help with team dynamics—In a startup setting, psychologists bring a combination of knowledge and experience around teams that has great potential. From our work in community, agency, and medical settings, we have experience as part of multidisciplinary teams within the healthcare space. Through this experience, we are used to approaching complicated problems while working alongside individuals whose experience and viewpoint may be vastly different from our own. For example, a multidisciplinary team may include backgrounds such as psychiatry, nursing, social work, art therapy, education, occupational therapy, speech pathology, family development/advocacy, law, and business. Additionally, we have key knowledge around group behavior and motivation that is rooted in social psychology. It was not enough to have our initial excitement around the idea. We needed to be able to maintain that drive. So everyone needed to have a role (or roles) that gave them a stake in not only the outcome of Skillstrader but the process as well.
3. Psychologists offer strength in one to one connection—This should come as no surprise, since providing individual psychotherapy has long been a traditional role of psychologists. And, at its heart, psychotherapy is about being able to show empathy and have an understanding of your client’s experience, which you can use to help them overcome their challenges and meet their goals. However, the translation of this area of expertise to a tech-based startup may not be immediately clear. For me, as part of this team, I wanted to be sure to spend individual time with members of the team so that I could learn more about their interests and passions. So I did, learning about teammate Adam LaFave‘s upcoming start as employee #52 at Zaarly, Philip Ross‘ passion for disrupting higher education, and how Ross Lazer‘s experience learning Rails web development inspired his idea for SkillsTrader. By engaging one on one with all members of the team that comprise a startup, psychologists can help bridge the gaps when misunderstanding or miscommunication occurs. By developing a knowledge of a particular person’s viewpoint, psychologists can help translate information between the gaps and create common ground.
4. Psychologists offer presentation and effective communication skills—Back in my internship days, Dr. Teitsma would often say that the true measure of a psychologist’s intelligence is not in being able to communicate ideas around psychology to other psychologists, but in being able to effectively communicate complex concepts in mental and emotional health to everyone and anyone. This concept has stayed with me throughout my career and in the many different tasks I have in my work. From assessment to therapy to consultation to presentation, I am only successful if I can help create understanding. And it’s not enough to just be able to communicate these ideas in a one to one setting, but psychologists need to be able to present to groups: teams, families, therapists, conferences, etc. Even though I was “out of my element” (and certainly anxious because of it) in this new experience of Startup Weekend, I had the gift of “reps” – multiple experiences presenting and passionately communicating ideas to a number of different groups. This was a skill that translated well to presenting to both our mentors and the panel of judges at the event.
5. Psychologists know that intrinsic reward is where it’s at—As we waited for the judge’s results after the presentations, we were eager and excited to hear if we had won the competition. We received positive feedback from mentors with various backgrounds (development, business, design) and were even told by members of other groups that they felt we were one of the most impressive teams. The tech our developers created in a mere 54 hour span was nothing short of incredible. We had a working match system set up for our “traders” that included working video chat. And then, the results came in. And . . . we were not awarded any spots in the top 3 by the judges. The disappointment for my team and for me was immediate. However, for me, this feeling passed quickly. The prizes and perks offered to the top teams were certainly valuable extrinsic rewards. I did not need the external validation of the competition to know that this was one of the best teams I have ever been a part of. I developed connections that will remain long after the winners of Startup Weekend Rochester are lost to my memory. And I added new experiences that would only serve to flame the passion I have for my startup (CohesiveSelf) and for bringing the worlds of technology and psychology together. Psychologists know these intrinsic rewards are the true drivers of success, creativity, execution, and big picture well-being.
So psychologists, mental health professionals, entrepreneurs, what do you think? What else did I miss?
The Game Layer
The idea of the “Game Layer” has been on my mind a lot lately after reading Thomas Goetz’s wonderful Wired article on the power of feedback loops and viewing the above video of Seth Priebatsch’s TED talk on his vision of this decade becoming the decade of games. Priebatsch is a fascinating young entrepreneur who dropped out of Princeton at age 19 to start SCVNGR, a company that combines mobile technology and location-based services to create “game experiences” for different businesses. Priebatsch is a passionate speaker who believes in the power of “game mechanics” to promote engagement. In addition to the ones outlined in his TED talk, SCVNGR has an entire “playdeck” of game mechanics that includes includes a number of dynamics inherent in games. Some of these include ideas related to reinforcement paradigms and schedules (Variable Ratio, Fixed Interval) and others related to the sense of accomplishment and drive that games give us, such as progression dynamics and blissful productivity.
In a world of Foursquare mayorships and GrouponNow, it’s not hard to see how the “Game Layer” can apply to retail businesses: your favorite coffee shop can offer “Levels” of customer loyalty, with increasing benefits and rewards as you spend more time (and money) within their establishment. You feel the rewards of getting great deals and being treated like a regular while they have created a loyal customer who gives them repeat business. However, trying to envision how it would apply outside of social media and retail business can be challenging.
As a clinical psychologist, I can’t help but recognize the roots of Seth Priebatsch and SCVNGR’s game mechanics, from Social Psychology and social learning theory to Behaviorism (and its modern counterpart, Behavior Analysis). I also wonder about bringing this information “full circle” in a manner that concepts such as the “Game Layer” and gamification influencing healthcare broadly and emotional health in particular. Some of the features of gamification that have been interesting to me have come from the Goetz Feedback Loop article and Chirag Patel’s presentation at Chicago’s Techweek. These have included Vitality’s Glowcaps, an effort to aid in medication compliance, and Greengoose, a company that is looking to incentivize healthy activity. However, there does not appear to be much currently going on in the mental health/behavioral health sphere to create the “Game Layer” in a way that produces greater emotional well-being. There seems to be tremendous opportunity in several domains within behavioral health treatment, but I’d like to talk about two in particular:
Treatment of Chronic Mental Health Issues
As a psychologist working both within a fairly large non-profit social services agency as well as in private practice, I have had the opportunity to get exposed to several facets of the mental health system. One area that the overall system struggles in is in treatment of individuals with chronic mental health conditions such as Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Intensive, 24-hour treatment and monitoring is expensive and often unsuccessful, limiting an individual’s ability to develop the independent living skills they need to manage their treatment successfully. However, treatment in community settings also has challenges. Some specific issues for this population that may benefit from game dynamics include the areas around maintaining connection to supports and ongoing medication compliance. Incentives and progression dynamics related to connection to caseworkers, care coordinators, and providers may add some strength in initiating and developing the important relationships required for ongoing treatment. Additionally, the game layer could provide a boost to medication monitoring and compliance through technology such as “smart’ medication dispensing devices, awards and progression for taking medication, and time-sensitive bonuses for taking medication within recommended or required time-frames.
Psychotherapy in Private Practice Settings
One of the issues for providers in private practice is that you meet with an individual for an hour a week and need to make the most of that time as only one hour of a total of 168 hours that week within that individuals experience. Within that time-frame, you need time to help understand their experience, gain insight into their challenges, and work with them to develop skills to meet those challenges. Within that one hour, you need to create understanding, acceptance, and change that will influence the other 167 hours of that individual’s life.
As a cognitive-behavioral therapist, the notion of concrete mental skills and practice of those skills outside of sessions is key to how I work. It is also something that fits the needs of my clients, who are primarily adolescents and young adults who are looking for material changes in themselves and their situations. Our current technology holds some promise in providing avenues to practice skills such as deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation. A game layer could make this technology even more effective by providing opportunity for reinforcement and rewards related to the practice of these mental skills. Game mechanics such as level systems and awards can bring about a sense of progression that can encourage further engagement in mental skills development and a greater perspective on the change that has taken place over time through measurable progression.
Caveat: The Moral Hazard of Game Play
One interesting dynamic that Priebatsch has discussed in talks and has in the SCVNGR “playdeck” is the “Moral Hazard of Game Play”. In the SCVNGR playdeck, this is defined as “the risk that by rewarding people manipulatively in a game you remove the actual moral value of the action and replace it with an ersatz game-based reward.” In other words, if you provide artificial incentives for an action, the intrinsic value of that action may be lost and replaced by action for the sake of just reaping the rewards. An example of this is grading in education. Through our current educational system, we have, in many ways, replaced the intrinsic value of learning with an emphasis on getting top grades. The notion of the moral value of self-actualization through learning becomes lost as top grades (and not knowledge) becomes the new goal. And the emphasis on grading creates behavioral side-effects such as cheating. This is an interesting concept for both physical and emotional health, since we would never want a strong emphasis on game mechanics and incentives to replace our true reason for providing psychotherapy: improving emotional well-being.