Wearable Technology in Psychological Research

Wearable Technology in Psychological Research

Explore how wearable devices are breaking barriers in capturing real-world data for psychological research. Discover the potential of wearables in monitoring behavior, sleep patterns, and physiological measures to advance our understanding of mental health.

May 31, 2023
By Alix Mitchner
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Traditional methods for assessing psychological constructs have been limited to self-reports, interviews, and participation in a lab setting. Wearable technology is changing that by creating new opportunities for researchers to measure physiological and behavioral factors as people go about their daily lives. This allows researchers to quantify a previously inaccessible and untapped stream of data.

Although still fairly new to the field, there is already a ton of excitement surrounding wearable devices as useful tools for conducting a diverse range of psychological research, particularly in the mental health space.

What’s amazing about the fitness bands is they give us objective measures to support what psychology has been telling us for decades. -Dr. Kristin Scott, Clemson University 

Wearable Technology in Psychology

The use of wearables has expanded into the psychological sciences as researchers are beginning to see the value of harnessing this technology to collect and analyze vast amounts of naturalistic data. Their advantages include scalability, the ability to incorporate objective measures, and real-world relevance.

Case Study

A research project at Clemson studied frontline healthcare workers’ resiliency at the height of the pandemic. The researchers collected both self-reported and objective biomarker data through Labfront to paint a more complete picture of their participants.

Mental and physical health beyond the lab

Wearables can help answer questions that involve real-time behavior in natural settings. There has long been a challenge in capturing what happens outside of the clinical setting. The rapid evolution of wearable technologies means that is now possible to collect regular, longitudinal, and high-resolution data remotely. With data collection and treatment monitoring no longer limited to a lab, wearables pave the way for larger and more useful data sets.  

We wanted to infuse biological data into psychological studies to give it more credibility and to provide opportunities for future intervention. -Dr. Ann Hsing, Stanford University

Researchers can use these devices to monitor participants’ moods, general well-being, and other factors as they go about their daily lives. In doing so, they are able to get more objective insight into the nuances of behavior.

Case Study

Stanford WELL For Life researchers wanted more objective well-being measures in their epidemiological study. They ran a pilot study to test the feasibility of using smartwatches to capture heart rate and then used heart rate variability (HRV) to estimate sleep quality and stress levels.

A check against subjective measures

By providing a way to compare objective data with self-reports,  wearables offer a solution to the inherent limitations of subjective data. They have the potential to add another layer of validity as they can be used to reduce self-reporting bias. 

We've all had experiences where objective information isn't in line with our own observations. For example, you may track your exercise using a smartwatch and then feel shocked by how little activity you actually got, saying to yourself, “But I did so much more than that!” (Or has that only happened to us?)

The challenge of relying on patient reports lies in their difficulty to accurately assess their physical activity, as they engage in non-sedentary but non-exercise activities. It’s hard to get them to understand how high their heart rate needs to be for it to be aerobic exercise. -Dr. Jenn Edelschick, Duke University

People tend to overestimate their activity levels when asked about them after the fact. This is often because it's hard for them to quantify and qualify aerobic exercise. Maybe they're doing more than just sitting on the couch, but aren't doing things that would be considered exercise. In contrast, wearable technology provides continuous, real-time measurement of things like physical activity. Coupled with self-report measures, this physiological data can provide clarity and context to self-reported data.

In other words, you can use physiological measures as a check against self-report measures, which participant biases may influence.

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Pro Tip

You can use Labfront’s in-app questionnaires to integrate subjective data with the sensor data collected through our platform.

Wearable Technology in Mental Health Research

Mood is constantly changing and influenced by various contextual factors, making it difficult to accurately capture through subjective reports alone. To address this challenge, passive sensing has become a promising and rapidly growing area in mental health research.

Wearables have the ability to capture a multitude of dimensions related to human behavior, including both physical and mental aspects of well-being. These devices can monitor activity levels, sleep patterns, heart rate variability (HRV), and even detect changes in voice, skin sweat gland activity (skin conductance), and movement patterns, which can provide valuable insights into an individual's mental health status.

Heart Rate Variability

One physiological variable in particular, HRV, seems to have a strong correlation with mental health. Contrary to popular belief, the heart does not constantly follow the same rhythm. The time between each heartbeat should change from beat to beat. This change is called HRV and it’s helpful for analyzing the overall well-being of an individual on a daily basis. 

Studies have shown that people with major depression have lower HRV than healthy controls. Conversely, elevated or increased HRV correlates with positive mood, emotional regulation, flexibility, and social engagement.

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Pro Tip

You can learn all about HRV in Dr. Andrew Ahn's HRV masterclass, available on Labfront Academy. Watch here.


Depression is a widespread mental health condition, with 25% of people worldwide experiencing it at least once in their lifetime. As depression continues to be a significant public health concern, finding effective ways to measure its symptoms is crucial. However, traditional methods such as interviews and self-report questionnaires can be time-consuming and costly.

Fortunately, wearable devices have emerged as a promising tool in depression research. Multiple studies have shown that parameters collected by wearables can provide valuable insights into depressive symptoms. For instance, increased physical activity and higher heart rate variability have been found to be correlated with lower rates of depression.

Leveraging smartwatch sensors and smartphones, a pilot study in 2020 demonstrated that a short-term depression detection framework based on self-reports and data from sensors could accurately classify individuals with depression.

Similarly, researchers from NTU Singapore have developed a predictive computer program that utilizes measurements from wearable devices to identify signs of depression. The results showed an impressive 80% accuracy in distinguishing high-risk individuals from those with little to no risk of developing depression.

The use of wearables in depression research holds great promise in providing a more efficient, cost-effective, and accessible means of measuring depressive symptoms.


Stress has been linked with a number of mental and physical health problems, such as depression and cardiovascular disease, which makes researchers expressly interested in the emergence of wearables as tools to assess stress in real-time. 

Studies indicate that wearables with the capability to capture heart rate (HR) are able to provide valuable information on exposure to stressors encountered in the naturalistic environment.  Popular consumer devices from Garmin, Apple Watch, and Fitbit, for instance, can measure HRV during stress.   

In addition, wearables could provide data on the body’s stress responses in people who have mental illnesses (such as post-traumatic stress disorder) — a population that has not traditionally been studied as much as others. 

It is hoped that these devices can help researchers quantify the burden of stress in everyday life and its association with various health outcomes. 


The link between sleep and mental health has been well-established through numerous scientific studies. Sleep plays a critical role in various aspects of mental health, including mood regulation, cognitive function, and emotional well-being.

Wearables offer a non-intrusive and objective way to measure and track sleep patterns. They have the advantage of being worn for extended periods of time in the comfort of one's own home, making them particularly useful for measuring the effectiveness of interventions on sleep and for studies examining the impact of sleep on anxiety, stress, and depression. 

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Most modern wrist-worn wearables monitor sleep by capturing heart rate and movement data. An accelerometer measures movement, and when a person is sleeping, the amount of movement being tracked will decrease significantly. Looking at your heart rate and the changes throughout the night can approximate the amount of time you spent in each sleep cycle. Some wearable devices may also collect respiration rate data or even use heart rate variability to estimate sleep stages. For example, the Advanced Sleep Monitoring feature on some Garmin smartwatches analyzes the user’s HRV, respiratory rate, heart rate, body movement, and bedtime to give a sleep score.

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Pro Tip

Did you know that a smartwatch can be just as effective as a medical-grade actigraphic device? Check out our actigraphy solution with Garmin.

Better Mental Health Research = Better Mental Health Care

There is a critical shortage of mental health professionals which is predicted to worsen in the coming years. Wearables could offer some hope in this ongoing mental health crisis. For instance, by determining what correlations happen when one is depressed with objective data to refer to, we can hopefully prevent or anticipate when someone is going into depression. 

Wearables can empower individuals to monitor physiological signals in their own environment. Learning more about physiological biomarkers of mental health can help individuals identify patterns in their behavior and recognize physical responses that impact their mental state would provide them with greater insight into their mental health, which would in turn help them to cope better. The hope is that by making physiological information more readily available, individuals might seek help earlier or act to reduce symptoms or triggers. 

Understanding that much of mental health insights are still heavily reliant on subjective data, ThoughtFull wanted to enhance our clinician's ability to delve deeper into their clients' wellbeing and progress by integrating objective data into their intervention methodology. -Joan Low, ThoughtFull CEO

Depression Monitoring and Treatment

The possibility of using wearable devices as tools to help to screen, monitor, and even formulate personalized treatments for depression has been supported by research. Wearable devices allow the potential to make predictive mental health intervention possible, as we sharpen our understanding of depression and its symptoms. 

For instance, Project Cheria used data from Garmin wearables integrated with ThoughtFull’s self-serve tools and one-on-one coaching. The study aimed to set up the basis for using wearable technology to help individuals, researchers, and mental health practitioners to improve mental well-being. 

Through the use of wearables, depression screening can become more cost-effective, unobtrusive, and continuously accessible.

Case Study

Scientists from Labfront and ThoughtFull came together to launch Project Cheria: a research study that combined mental health therapy with digital biomarker monitoring to help better understand depression.


Introducing wearables in psychology research is a game changer given they provide quantifiable, physiological data to areas that have been mostly focused on qualitative input thus far. By leveraging the data collected from wearable devices, researchers and mental health professionals can potentially improve the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health disorders.

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Try out Labfront in your next psychology study!

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Alix Mitchner
Alix Mitchner
Marketing Specialist

Alix doubles as the marketing and pun specialist at Labfront. She usually operates quietly behind the scenes, but give her a karaoke mic and all bets are off.

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