Your phone – the 21st century equivalent of a mood ring?

For a while in the 1970s, mood rings were all the rage.

They supposedly indicated the wearer’s emotions by changing colour, and they were allegedly scientific.

Mind you, this was also the time of pet rocks.


By 1976, mood rings had entered popular culture to the extent that they featured in a Peanuts comic strip, when Peppermint Patty got so upset with Charlie Brown that her mood ring exploded.

Not a pretty sight.

You really don’t want that happening.

Fast forward 40 years, and some believe that smartphones can act as a kind of mood ring, one that actually does work.

The idea is that by tracking your movements and behaviours, your phone can detect whether you’re having a good or bad day.

Proponents of this theory suggest that someone who’s feeling low is likely to be more immobile (perhaps even staying at home) and less social – sending fewer emails and texts, and making less calls.

The opposite might be true for an individual who was in high spirits.

Now I’m slightly uneasy with this model, mainly because it seems to me that you could easily look inactive when you’re actually at home immersed in some kind of project you’re loving, so not communicating with others could in reality be the result of you having a great time.

Alternatively you could be rushing around making dozens of calls trying to solve some kind of crisis, stressing you out hugely.

I discuss this because I was contacted last week by one of the organisers of an initiative called the Mood Challenge, which is offering substantial and generous grants to studies which explore the use of the iPhone (it’s Apple-specific) as a way to better understand mood.

I know some Moodnudges readers are themselves researchers, and may be interested in applying, in which case I’m happy to pass on details of the Mood Challenge’s website:

But I’m also keen to open up a discussion about this in the Comments section below.

Do you think it’s possible to use “passive” monitoring on a phone to measure mood?

Passive in this sense means your phone would work out how you are, without you needing to do anything.

Or does it seem more likely that mood measurement requires “active” participation by the user – taking some kind of “test”, like the Moodscope one, or the questions in my imminent Nudge Your Way to Happiness book?

I think I’m pretty much in the second camp, but I’d love to know how you see it.

27 thoughts on “Your phone – the 21st century equivalent of a mood ring?

  1. I agree – just using patterns of movement or calls is much too blunt a tool- you’d have to know a lot more about each individual’s life, work and activities to get a sense of mood using ‘passive’ data. The reasons you outline make sense and even if the phone had a profile over time which was linked to self reported mood, a day spend in bed with flu (or a misplaced phone) would probably look like a dip on mood.
    I think also this this is part of a wider problem with ‘big data’ in that it exaggerates the effects of the ecological fallacy argument ( ie that you might know a population average but not know the extent to which that applied to a given individual). I start to think we have more and more useless data and should be shifting towards valuing data quality and value (including predictive value) sometime soon..

    1. It’s one of those ideas that seems as if it should be possible, but then starts to unravel as you look at it in greater detail. You’re so right Kirstie. It’s easy to collect huge amounts of data, but what’s the real purpose and point of doing so if it’s not contributing to better health? Thanks for your thoughtful reflection.

  2. I’m very much in the second camp. Sometimes I’m having a great day and I may, perish the thought, have left my phone at home!

  3. Some of my best days are spent either sewing or reading and not communicating much with the outside world, so I am very much in the second camp, too! It sounds like another incidence of the extrovert-norm/bias to me.

    1. Thanks for making that great point Lizzie. I suspect that you’re not exactly making much use of your phone while you’re sewing, reading, and not communicating much with the outside world.

  4. It sounds interesting, it may be that you would have to set up some initial criteria. So for example you could enter that a significant portion of your day was spent sitting painting (which mine is), I try to go out for 3 small walks a day during my working period to mitigate against all the sitting, so if the phone didn’t detect 3 walks then that might indicate that I couldn’t be bothered which might lead to a low mood/compulsive behaviour settling in… That could actually be really handy, as that kind of behaviour tends to creep in, you don’t go for the walk one day coz you are knackered, and then its easier the next day just to do 2 and then 1 and then none… something reminding you of the benefit would be good, I think if you were able to set up a “healthy” criteria initially, then passive reporting might work ok… but it would need I think to be able to be customised to your “healthy”.

    1. Right… that’s a helpful reflection. So your phone might become a kind of early warning system if you weren’t doing the things you’d usually do. Interesting.

  5. I’m with you Jon, using data gathered by autonomous means is flawed. We already know that you cannot convey tone using this medium so any analysis of statistics is pointless as it will be inherently flawed.

  6. I’m in the second camp, too! I do not use my cell phone much. It is for emergencies. I don’t use my landline much either. Most of my day is spent in knitting, reading, taking care of my dog and my house. I should mention, I’m retired. The lack (or not) of activity on a phone has almost no bearing on how I’m feeling. If I’m on the phone a lot, it almost always means trouble, but not necessarily in a stressful way.

    1. That’s an interesting dimension Bev, that being on the phone a lot is a sign of trouble, even though it’s not in a stressful way. This is another sign to me of how difficult it would be to come up with “one size fits all” solutions. Thank you.

  7. I think it’s possible – it would be quite a complicated algorithm though and rely upon quite a large pool of data collection which would require individuals to answer some kind of questionnaire as well to link it to their smart phone activity. It may not be as straightforward as inactive = sad, overactive = manic, etc., but rather possibly something Iike more time on Facebook/Twitter browsing but not active (when usually quite active) = possibly something wrong. It would have to be a programme which “learns” an individual’s normal smart phone behaviour and moods then goes from there. It might be good to have a combination of the two – perhaps an app which, if it notices you are behaving differently to normal sends you a little message “how are you feeling right now?” and perhaps could notify a few friends/family members if it’s not good. Perhaps you could link some kind of nudge to it too!


    1. Great thinking Lizzy. I think you’re saying it would be difficult to do, but perhaps not totally impossible. I like the idea of having nudges built in, too!

  8. I feel as if all of this is encouraging the abdication of responsibility again. Whenever I start to think that other people/things can solve my mood it only gets much, much worse and actually exacerbates the negative vibe that feeds depression and anxiety.
    I am definitely in the second camp with ownership and self responsibility.
    I like to choose my crutches such as meditation, yoga, exercise, music and books like Jon’s but I think it is a combination that has helps me not just one thing and certainly not technology!
    Great discussion point though!

    1. Yes Claire. At the end of the day self-care is vital. Of course there will always be the need (for some) to rely on outside support. But abdication of responsibility is a massive issue. Thanks for reflecting on this so thoughtfully.

  9. I’m wondering why I need an iPhone to tell me my mood? Isn’t that overkill? I most likely know my moods better than my phone would. And what will be done with this [mis]information?

  10. Firmly in second camp, with camp fire and kettle on! There are ‘fitbits’ that buzz you when you haven’t moved enough…..ugh…the thought of it especially having had an extremely busy day today I will probably completely cream crackered tomorrow…but will still do smaller jobs and walk the doggit twice….doesn’t mean I’m depressed.
    Think sometimes someone somewhere comes up with another ‘essential must-have toy’ that is ‘selling’ something else to us. Don’t think we need it but maybe someone will come on here and tell us real benefits….??
    Where’s your book Jon??!!
    Waiting with bated breath!

    1. That’s a splendid fire you have going there Karen. Thanks for your helpful and wise views. The book? SO close. I’m getting what I hope is the final proof tomorrow, which is very exciting (and a bit nail-biting).

  11. I think it will prove possible to track our mood, and actually a sort of imperative if we want to train machines to love us in the long run. Not just physical machines we see, but the ones driving our connections through social media and old fashioned media. At the same time, just tracking gross movement and patterns of interaction is not enough. It seems like any kind of accurate assessment will need to rely on a collection of data from a realm of different sources from devices including our phones, cameras and microphones in the house like:

    Voice characteristics — rhythm, volume, pitch, etc:
    Sentiment analysis of what we type
    Characterization of how we move — is it fast, rhythmic, stacato, smooth, clunky
    Facial expressions
    Posture analysis
    Heart rate and heart rate variability (which can be picked up by cameras now):

    It seems like any accurate system would have to undergo a calibration period in conjunction with tools like moodscope in order to create better correspondence between how we feel and a model of it.

    Of course this begs a couple of questions around how this might be fed back to us in an empowering way. Reminding us we are in a bad mood might be enough to send us on a downward spiral. Noticing particular people or activities make us cranky could be useful, and might not always be welcomed information. It might prove challenging and uncomfortable to realize that some parts of ourselves are actually addicted to the adrenaline rush of anger to keep us moving for example.
    But then again, embedding emotional intelligence into our machine cloud, might lead to a set of design patterns for applications, sensors, and tools that make us happier, more graceful, and more empowered as individuals and a culture…

    Here is a link to a story I wrote on the state of the art in emotion tracking about a year ago:

    Here is a link to an overview on the ethics of not testing for emotional state:

    1. Thank you George, for a thoroughly thought-provoking contribution. I especially love your suggestion that we’ll train machines to love us in the long run. I think I know what you mean, even though a machine’s love for me is probably going to be different from another human’s. And if you accept that one of the basic building blocks of love for another is having a deep understanding of them, then—definitely—one way or another our technology needs to have a strong awareness of how we’re feeling.

  12. I’n also in the second camp- if I’m feeling low I’m more likely to be reaching out to lots of people for reassurance and contact. If I’m not contacting people it’s because I’m feeling more secure in myself and need the crutches less. There are exceptions but that is generally the way it goes. And I’ve stopped using facebook lately because it was damaging to my mental health- so what does that say?

  13. This had me considering the Myers Brigg ‘personality profile’. I would appear to be extrovert – but I did mention ‘appear’. For once out and about I do tend to involve myslef and so would appear as ‘extrovert’. However, the stimuli of this is, to me, very tiring. So For every hour out there and noticing and being involved I would been maybe double that alone to recover. So … such a device would need to be able to understand each individual. Yep brains need calories too and apparently this doesn’t register on an activity monitor. Sheena

  14. A little frustrated that the challenge only extends to Apple devices, and that I don’t have the time or mental ability at all right now to sit down and find collaborators/think up a proposal (and very sorry about the survey data too – the same thing happened…). Generally I am inclined to agree with Kirstie’s comment but think those sorts of restrictions are only imposed on small groups with limited machine learning/data science capabilities – just look at the quality of advertising profiles Facebook can build for individuals for instance. With a sophisticated enough model for what to do with the data, and further developments in user-friendly model training…I’m excited to see where this research can lead.

  15. As far as I’m aware there is no completely objective method of assessing mood. Psychiatrists and other mental health people can’t do it without asking us a whole bunch of questions. They can infer some things from observation, but that in itself is never enough.

    Some things to consider:

    I’m in hospital at the moment and am locked inside except under very specific conditions. My pedometer is recording me walking around 2 miles a day.

    I’ve been way behind with my email for a month. Initially I was too high to sit still for it, then within 2 days of that I was too low to care about it. How can my phone tell the difference?

    I’ve been using way more data than usual. Is that because I’m being particularly productive, I’m procrastinating a lot, or because I simply have no access to wifi? Same with actually using my phone as a phone (how anachronistic of me!)

    Our phones can track our actions but they can’t track the reasons for our actions, not without subjective input anyway.

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