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Momentary sampling

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Momentary sampling is a novel methodological technique in which participants complete the same questionnaire, often several times a day, over the course of a few days, weeks, or months. This technique can be used to examine the causal direction of relationships more definitively as well as fascinating, and previously overlooked, variations across time. Furthermore, this technique overcomes biases that are inherent in more traditional approaches.

Over the last decade or so, some vital insights have been discovered, none of which would have been unearthed if this methodology had not been applied. For example, research has revealed that individuals who demonstrate a form of perfectionism, feeling ashamed when they do not fulfill the expectations and standards that friends, relatives, or colleagues impose, are more likely to neglect rather than resolve the problems they experience (Dunkley, Zuroff, and Blankstein, 2003). Research has also revealed that individuals who demonstrate an unstable self esteem, in which their attitudes towards themselves vary appreciably across time, are more inclined to become angry, blaming other individuals or factors they cannot control to justify their inferior performance (Kernis, Greenier, Herlocker., Whisenhunt, & Abend, 1997).


Momentary sampling is intended to overcome some of the inherent problems with traditional procedures that are used to collect self reports. Traditionally, participants complete a single survey, to identify their mood, attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors over a period of time. They might, for example, be asked to describe their emotions and coping styles-the extent to which they feel anxious or dejected, for instance-- over the last two weeks.

To answer the questions, the individuals must both recollect and integrate experiences over an extended period of time. These processes will tend to bias or obscure some of the responses (Stone et al., 1998). First, these traditional approaches often obscure the shifting patterns of behavior across time. To illustrate, on average, individuals who overestimate their traits or contributions, referred to as a positive illusions, tend to experience more positive moods. This observation does not underscore the inclination of individuals to overestimate their traits, referred to as a biased self esteem, to experience more intense fluctuations in mood, often demonstrating intense anger and frustration (see Kernis, 2003).

Second, and related to this issue, these traditional approaches cannot establish direction of causality. They cannot, for example, ascertain whether positive self illusions improve mood or whether mood elicits positive self illusions. Even longitudinal studies, in which these measures are assessed several times-often between two and five times across the course of a week, month, year, or decade-do not always establish the direction of causality. For example, a positive illusion at one time might improve mood, but over the next hour. Accordingly, positive illusions are unlikely to affect mood the next day. Longitudinal studies, in which for example positive illusions and mood are assessed once a day over the course of a week, are unlikely to uncover this direction of causality.

Third, traditional measures, which oblige individuals to integrate a large, if not immeasurable, array of experiences into a single response, are more susceptible to the explicit beliefs that individuals have formed (Schwartz, Neale, Macro, Shiffman, & Stone, 1999). Some individuals might explicitly conceptualize themselves as a happy individual, perhaps because this belief boosts their self esteem. If these individuals are then asked to evaluate their mood over the last week, this belief might bias their responses. In contrast, if these individuals are asked to evaluate their current mood, this bias diminishes, because their extant feelings might be more salient.

Fourth, as a consequence of this integration, relative to unobservable experiences, overt experiences might be weighted inordinately. Suppose participants are instructed, for example, to express the coping strategies they have used to accommodate an upsetting event. They might apply a range of strategies, ranging from overt acts, such as telephoning a friend, to unobservable cognitions, such as reframing the event, focusing on the beneficial implications of this episode. Subsequently, when asked to describe their responses, they might be more inclined to recall the observable strategies. Indeed, consistent with this premise, studies reveal that individuals tend to overestimate the extent to which they rely on overt behaviors rather than unobservable cognitions in response to distressing events (Ptacek, Smith, Espe, & Rafferty, 1994;; Stone et al., 1998).


To overcome these problems, a technique called momentary sampling was developed, and this approach is become increasingly prevalent in many domains of psychology (see Ptacek, Smith, Espe, & Rafferty, 1994;; Silk, Steinberg, & Morris, 2003). In essence, participants receive a questionnaire, often assessing their affect, attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors, at several times during the day. In particular, some cue, such as an alarm, is emitted at specific times in the day, reminding participants to complete the questionnaire (e.g., Larson, 1989). The questionnaires might be presented in paper and, therefore, would have been distributed to participants earlier. Alternatively, the questionnaires might be distributed electronically, often through personal digital assistants and electronic diaries. Participants then complete the questions in their natural environment, often at work, home, restaurants, and so forth.

Some of the parameters of momentary sampling vary appreciably across studies. The number of times that participants complete questionnaire can vary dramatically, ranging from one (e.g., Todd, Tennen, Carney, Armeli, & Affleck, 2004) to ten or more (e.g., Henker, Whalen, Jammer, & Delfino, 2002). Usually, the precise times at which individuals complete the questions are allocated random, but constrained within specific intervals. Participants might be informed they will complete the questionnaire at three times: once between 8 am and noon, once between noon and 4 pm, and once between 4 pm and 8 pm, for example.

In addition, the mode in which the questions are delivered varies across studies. In many studies, the questions are delivered on paper, usually in the form of a booklet that participants complete using a pen or pencil. The principal drawback of this medium is that participants often do not comply with instructions: they often complete many of the booklets at one time. This tendency was verified by Stone, Shiffman, Schwartz, Broderick, and Huffor (2003), using an unobtrusive photosensor to ascertain the precise times at which participants actually completed the questions.

To override this issue, some studies equip participants with personal digit assistants or electronic diaries (e.g., Piasecki, Huffor, Solhan, & Trull, 2007). Participants receive a cue and must complete the questions within a limited duration. Responses are then saved, together with the time at which the questions were completed. This equipment, however, can be expensive, inconvenient to convey, and difficult to program. As a consequence, other techniques have been considered, including mobile telephones (e.g., Collins, Kashdan, & Gollnisch, 2003).


Collins, R. L., Kashdan, T. B., & Gollnisch, G. (2003). The feasibility of using cellular phones to collect ecological momentary assessment data: Application to alcohol consumption. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 11, 73-78.

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Henker, B., Whalen, C. K., Jammer, L. D., & Delfino, R. J. (2002). Anxiety, affect, and activity in teenagers: Monitoring daily life with electronic diaries. Journal of American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 41, 660-670.

Kernis, M. H. (2003). Toward a conceptualization of optimal self-esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 14, 1-26.

Kernis, M. H., Greenier, K. D., Herlocker, C. E., Whisenhunt, C. W., & Abend, T. (1997). Self-perceptions of reactions to positive and negative outcomes: The roles of stability and level of self-esteem. Personality and Individual Differences, 22, 846 854.

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Piasecki, T. M., Huffor, M. R., Solhan, M., & Trull, T. J. (2007). Assessing clients in their natural environments with electronic diaries: Rationale, benefits, limitations, and barriers. Psychological Assessments, 19, 25-43.

Ptacek, J. T., Smith, R. E., Espe, K., & Rafferty, B. (1994). Limited correspondence between daily coping reports and retrospective coping recall. Psychological Assessments, 6, 41-49.

Schwartz, J. E., Neale, J. M, Macro, C. A, Shiffman, S., & Stone, A. A. (1999). Does trait coping exist? A momentary assessment approach to the evaluation of traits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 360-369.

Silk, J. S., Steinberg, L., & Morris, A. S. (2003). Adolescent's emotion regulation in daily life: Links to depressive symptoms and problem behaviour. Child Development, 75, 1869-1880.

Stone, A. A., Schwartz, J. E., Neale, J. M., Shiffman, S., Macro, C. A., Hickcox, M., et al. (1998). A comparison of coping assessed by ecological momentary assessment and retrospective recall. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1670-1680.

Stone, A. A., Shiffman, S., Schwartz, J. E., Broderick, J. E., & Huffor, M. R. (2003). Patient compliance with electronic and paper diaries. Controlled Clinical Trials, 24, 182-199.

Todd, M., Tennen, H., Carney, M. A., Armeli,S., & Affleck, G. (2004). Do we know how to cope? Relating daily coping report to global and time-limited retrospective assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 310-319.

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Last Update: 6/2/2016