Using mobile phones to examine and enhance perceptions of control in mildly depressed and nondepressed volunteers: intervention study

Rachel Msetfi, Donal O'Sullivan, Amy Walsh, John Nelson, Pepijn Van de Ven

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Abstract

Background:
Perceived control is strongly linked to healthy outcomes, mental healthiness, and psychological well-being. This is particularly important when people have little control over things that are happening to them. Perceived control studies have been performed extensively in laboratory settings and show that perceived control can be increased by experimental manipulations. Although these studies suggest that it may be possible to improve people’s mental health by increasing their perceived control, there is very little evidence to date to suggest that perceived control can also be influenced in the real world.

Objective:
The first aim of this study was to test for evidence of a link between noncontrol situations and psychological well-being in the real world using a mobile phone app. The second and arguably more important aim of the study was to test whether a simple instructional intervention on the nature of alternative causes would enhance people’s perceptions of their own control in these noncontrol situations.

Methods:
We implemented a behavioral action-outcome contingency judgment task using a mobile phone app. An opportunity sample of 106 healthy volunteers scoring low (n=56, no depression) or high (n=50, mild depression) on a depression scale participated. They were given no control over the occurrence of a low- or high-frequency stimulus that was embedded in everyday phone interactions during a typical day lasting 8 hours. The intervention involved instructions that either described a consistent alternative cause against which to assess their own control, or dynamic alternative causes of the outcome. Throughout the day, participants rated their own control over the stimulus using a quantitative judgment scale.

Results:
Participants with no evidence of depression overestimated their control, whereas those who were most depressed were more accurate in their control ratings. Instructions given to all participants about the nature of alternative causes significantly affected the pattern of perceived control ratings. Instructions describing discrete alternative causes enhanced perceived control for all participants, whereas dynamic alternative causes were linked to less perceived control.

Conclusions:
Perceptions of external causes are important to perceived control and can be used to enhance people’s perceptions. Theoretically motivated interventions can be used to enhance perceived control using mobile phone apps. This is the first study to do so in a real-world setting.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere10114
JournalJMIR Mhealth and Uhealth
Volume6
Issue number11
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 09 Nov 2018
Externally publishedYes

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