ASPPH logo


Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Rutgers Dean Combats Recall Bias in Study Participants with Texts and Phone Calls

Rutgers School of Public Health Dean Perry N. Halkitis and his colleague from New York University, Dr. Dustin Duncan, have determined that text messages and phone calls may be acceptable modes of gathering insights into the behaviors of young men who have sex with men (MSM).

Ecological momentary assessment (EMA) has long been recognized as a way to limit the effects of recall bias or failure among study participants, affording investigators the temporal resolution to assess changes in a subject’s behavior and experiences with respect to time and context. However, few — if any — studies have focused on vulnerable populations that experience health disparities, including MSM. Young MSM are disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic and are at increased risks for substance use compared to their heterosexual peers; paradoxically, the mind-altering effects of the substance use that many studies try to measure can impact subjects’ abilities to report such use.

Researchers from Project 18 (P18), a cohort study of sexual behavior, substance abuse, and mental health burdens, invited a sample of their study participants to enroll in a sub-study designed to assess the feasibility of using GPS to measure special mobility and neighborhood contexts. Respondents were also asked about how they would react to the use of text message- and voice-based EMA methods to answer questions related to their mood, surroundings, and feelings. The results were overwhelmingly positive: nearly all participants indicated that they would be willing to accept such text messages, and a large majority reported a willingness to accept phone calls to the same effect. Moreover, examining the differences between various sociodemographic characteristics reveals no appreciable differences with respect to those subgroups.

EMA gives researchers a tool to garner insights into the behaviors and feelings of study participants in real time and in real-world surroundings, without some of the biases encountered in time-shifted self-reporting. Although it is not a perfect method — individuals may change their behavior or underreport health risk behaviors — EMA transcends traditional research methods and offers new opportunities for engagement, providing the temporal resolution to analyze a given subject’s behavior with respect to time.

Acceptability of ecological momentary assessment among young men who have sex with men” was recently published in the Journal of LGBT Youth.