What Can Smartphones Reveal About Social Behavior?

Data collection using phones provides a window into social behavior.

Posted Aug 13, 2020

DanielZanetti Creative Commons 3.0
Source: DanielZanetti Creative Commons 3.0

In the modern world, we have lots of ways of engaging with other people: face-to-face, on the phone, or using a video chat system, texts, instant messages, and social media apps that allow us to view and comment on the lives of others even if we don’t interact with them directly.

Are there real individual differences in how often people engage in these activities? Certainly, it seems as if some people are more prone to engage in conversations or use social media or text than others. But, actually measuring this behavior is hard.

People’s social behavior was explored in a fascinating paper by Gabriella Harari, Sandrine Muller, Clemens Stachl, Rui Wang, Weichen Wang, Markus Buhner, Peter Rentfrow, Andrew Campbell, and my University of Texas colleague Sam Gosling in the July 2020 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

As the researchers point out, a natural thing to do to understand social behavior is to do a survey or interview in which you ask people questions about how often they engage in particular behaviors. Unfortunately, people can’t really answer those questions accurately. They can provide a general sense of how often they engage in a social interaction, but they can’t provide specific numbers.

Instead, across four studies using slightly different methods, the researchers took advantage of smartphones as data collection devices. With participants' consent, they used recordings from their phones' microphones to determine whether participants were involved in conversations at various times. They used logs of phone calls and text messages to determine whether people talked on the phone or exchanged texts. They also tracked usage of messaging apps and social media.

The participants in these studies are all young adults, so the patterns observed say something primarily about people in their late teens and early twenties. That said, there are some overall observations that are likely to be true of a broader range of people.

There seems to be a fair amount of stability in the amount of social interaction people engage in day-to-day. That is, if you are the sort of person who engages often with others, you tend to do that to a similar degree every day. Obviously, there are many factors that might lead one day to differ from another, but looking across time, a particular person gravitates toward a particular level of social interaction.

People also treat different modes of social interaction differently—they are not all interchangeable. Some people have strong preferences for in-person conversations, while others prefer phone conversations. Some people tend to use text messages frequently, while others favor social media and messaging apps. Being the sort of person who engages in a lot of in-person conversations does not guarantee that you also have a lot of phone conversations, text chats, or exchanges via app. Instead, you create a set of routines around your communication.

There are likely to be many factors that determine how often someone communicates with other people and how they select the mode of interaction. Much of that will be the subject of future research. However, this group did measure the Big Five personality characteristics for each participant. As you might expect, the higher someone’s level of the trait of extraversion, the more that they tended to engage in interactions with other people. The relationship between extraversion and individual differences in communication was small, which further suggests that many other factors are at work.

Many of the results of this research may not seem that surprising. What is most fascinating about these results is that they signal that devices like smartphones can provide a valuable data collection tool for researchers that will permit more robust and accurate measurements of a variety of behaviors.


Harari, G.M., Muller, S.R., Stachl, C., Wang, R., Wang, W., Buehner, M., Rentfrow, P.J., Campbell, A.T., & Gosling, S.D. (2020). Sensing sociability: Individual differences in young adults' conversation, calling, texting, and app use behaviors in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(1), 204-228.