Mobile Eye Tracking: How Decisions Affect Your Emotional State

The majority of young adults dread old age, not only due to the health issues associated with it, but because they know it brings them ever closer to the terrifying concept of death. This public stigma has resulted in a perspective that being “young” is fundamentally more enjoyable than being “old.”

If you agree with this outlook, then it may come as a surprise to learn that recent findings in psychology support just the opposite perspective. Studies done by The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2003 and 2011 showed how contrary to common belief, older adults (ages 65 and up) reported experiencing less psychological distress, anger, and worry on a week-to-week basis than younger adults.

This new understanding that older members of our society report being happier is referred to as the “paradox of aging,” and is the focus of much research across the country. Dr. Derek Isaacowitz is an associate professor in Northeastern’s psychology department on the cutting edge of research aimed at understanding this concept.

In addition to directing the Psychology department’s Honors Program, Dr. Isaacowitz is head of the Lifespan Emotional Development Laboratory (LED Lab), which is where his inventive research is currently taking place. Isaacowitz explains how one of his experiments examines how “the decisions a participant makes may impact their overall mood.” By having a participant make life-like decisions in the lab, Dr. Isaacowitz and his team of graduate assistants use innovative tools such as mobile eye tracking glasses to measure the effects these decisions have on the participants’ overall emotional state.

Mobile eye tracking glasses are a perfect tool when it comes to understanding how decisions affect mood, because they allow precise observation of where the participant is looking at any given moment. Furthermore, they provide extremely realistic data because the participant has “life-like freedom of movement,” according to Michael Richard, a current graduate researcher in the LED Lab. Richard explained how not long ago, the lab was using stationary eye trackers, which they soon realized weren’t allowing the participant the freedom to move their head normally.

The eye tracking glasses are made up of two cameras located on the lens of a single pair of glasses: one facing the participant’s eye and one facing forward. When calibrated, EyeVision software takes the information from the camera facing the eye to track the movement of the pupil, and reflects that information onto the video footage that is coming in from the front-facing camera.

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First, the eye tracker is securely fastened on the participant, and calibrated using Eye Vision software. Then, the participant is given 15 minutes to choose any video they want from a list of 15 videos on three different screens, and their eye movement is documented. Once the 15 minutes is up, the crucial part of the experiment is complete.

After careful analysis of the data produced by the mobile eye trackers, Isaacowitz and his research assistants embark on what every psychological researcher loves to do: analyzing behavior to understand the underlying cognitive motivation and reasoning. The factors under analysis in this specific experiment are the videos the participant chose based on the mood they were in, what part of the video they focused their attention on at any given moment, and how this affected their mood.

Isaacowitz hopes to use this knowledge to further understand why older members of our society have displayed higher rates of emotional stability and general happiness compared to younger adults.

The LED lab is always looking for motivated undergraduate and graduate research assistants. Whether you’re interested in volunteering, gaining research credit, or working full time, don’t hesitate to contact the lab via email: ledlab.northeastern@gmail.com

Keeyon Olia, Psychology, 2018

Eyetracker photo courtesy of the Lifespan Emotional Development Lab.