Biometrics hookup

Hooking up…for research.

Research can reveal a lot of things...sometimes even things we don't want to know. While researching "research," Wendy discovered one of the lesser known, but widely accepted and highly effective methodologies. After talking to practioner Paul Bolls, she was hooked.
January 7, 2015

2015 promises to be a watershed year for Sandbox Summit. March 23 and 24 at MIT will be the inaugural event of a new collaboration. Sandbox Summit is now part of PlayCollective, enriching our conversation with the global insights and strategy of some of the brightest—and most diverse—brains in the industry.  Among the team who introduced me to exciting new methodologies is Paul Bolls, Chief PlayScientist at PlayCollective, and Director, Creative Media & Mind Science Lab, University of Missouri. Paul’s research focuses on Media Psychophysiology, the study of how individuals mentally process and are influenced by media content and technologies. Though not actually a new field — the first known study using physiological measures to study responses to film was published in 1933 — Paul’s application of the insights to optimize context, content and structure of play is intriguing, and another useful tool to create inspiring and effective products.

After watching Paul “prep” his subjects at PlayCollective’s NYC PlayLab by hooking up sensors over their bodies (think EEG on steroids). I asked him to elaborate about his field.

PB: Psychophysiology, the general framework for my research, is the science of mapping specific patterns of physiological response to mental activity such as paying attention and emotionally responding to sensory stimuli. Media psychophysiology uses biometric (physiological) measures like heart rate and facial muscle activity in combination with self-report and behavioral measures to produce insights into how individuals interact with and are influenced by media.

WS: How does psychophysiology “work?”

PB: Psychophysiology produces knowledge of unconscious and conscious responses that occur as individuals interact with sensory stimuli. The research is good for explaining how and why any effects of interacting with sensory stimuli occur. Beyond media, knowledge can be translated into actionable insights for optimizing different types of user experiences from toy design to product packaging to communications. I call this “brain friendly” design, that strategically structures experiences to engage users’ brains in ways that benefit the individual and yield positive effects for the client of the research. I have personally conducted this type of research for clients including media and entertainment companies, consumer product brands, and non-profit/government organizations.

WS: Is it ever contradictory vis-à-vis other research?

PB: Psychophysiology is a technically complex science focused on understanding what is arguably the most complex entity that exists – the human mind. Add to that the complexity of all the elements that can go into the design and delivery of products and communications and you have a research approach that is full of potential pitfalls. I think one of the most common mistakes happens when a research supplier is focused on physiological measures (EEG, MRI, heart rate etc.) and over-hypes what can validly be learned by recording brain activity. Psychophysiology as a research framework requires a multi-method approach of gathering data that reflects physiology, language and behavior in order to produce valid and practically valuable holistic insights into the emotions, attention, memories, attitudes, and actions that reflect human experience.

Neuromarketing, currently the largest industry attempt at applying psychophysiology, has historically fallen prey to this pitfall by overemphasizing data from recording brain activity in drawing insights. The argument is that unconscious brain responses dominate decision-making and behavior so conscious responses given by consumers on surveys or in focus groups are of less value and are not to be believed when they appear to contradict the physiological data. I think this oversimplifies the interaction of unconscious and conscious processes in determining behavior. Further, a more scientifically valid way of applying psychophysiology is to approach it as a research framework that produces a view of the human mind in action through multiple methodologies and not as simply the application of physiological measures. This will provide the means for a researcher to be grounded in a solid scientific understanding of the mind and be prepared to look across multiple forms of quantitative and qualitative data in order to make sense out of situations where the research may appear to be contradictory or iffy.

WS: What type of other research do you use to augment your results?

PB: Psychophysiology is a research framework that first and foremost is grounded in the most current scientific understanding of the human mind/brain. The most important research I use not only to augment my results but also to structure data collection is existing published research on how the mind works.

Psychophysiology is also a research framework dedicated to the use of multiple measures beyond physiological measures. I personally use a range of methodologies including questionnaires, memory tests, implicit attitude measures, focus groups and in-depth interviews in combination with the physiological measures.

The clients I’ve worked with have seen tremendously valuable, nuanced insights come from this mix of physiological data and qualitative, in-depth interviews. A cost-effective way to conduct this research that is likely to produce in-depth actionable insights is to combine larger-sample quantitative online survey data with well-designed in-facility sessions that involve recording physiological data.

WS: Does where the research is done affect the results?

PB: Definitely!  Physiological activity can potentially be influenced by anything that is in the environment where the data is being recorded – from room temperature to the manner in which a researcher interacts with a research participant. This is why it is typically best to conduct research in a more controlled lab-like environment. Clearly, researchers and clients have to be concerned about the external validity of the research or how results might be different if participants were in their own home, for example. Researchers who have the appropriate scientific training can design their research to as closely as possible simulate a more naturalistic environment that is relevant to the study and also determine how results are likely to vary across different locations and environments.

WS: Are there any well-known studies and results you can cite?

PB: The client research is proprietary but there are publicly-available published peer reviewed scientific articles and sources.

Robert Potter and I co-authored “Psychophysiological Measurement and Meaning: Cognitive and Emotional Processing of Media” the first book on applying this approach in media research published in 2012. This book provides an overview of the history of the field and reviews many of the studies conducted in the area.

I also conducted a study for a non-profit organization that produces highway safety videos to generate insights into how to optimize messaging for young adult males. The results demonstrated that this audience is most engaged and persuaded by videos present the consequences of unsafe driving in extremely graphic, gory detail but producers of these videos need to present these consequences in a way that also boosts the perceived credibility of the message. This result points to the degree to which both unconscious and conscious processes drive persuasion.

Email me at and I’d be happy to help anyone access published studies.

WS: Thank you for the insights. I look forward to working with you in 2015.

Hear Paul and others when you register for Sandbox Summit@MIT, March 23 and 24.

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