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Understanding the Relationship Between People and Their Environments Using Smartphone Data: A Study of Personality, Places Visited, and Emotional Experiences



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Müller, Sandrine Ruth  ORCID logo


Much has been theorized about the relationship between people and their environments. Certain people may be more inclined to visit certain types of places (e.g., campus, pub) and display different patterns of mobility as they move among them (e.g., number of places visited, distances traveled). Moreover, even the same place may affect people differently, depending on their psychological characteristics (e.g., personality). In this dissertation, I draw upon recent technological advances in smartphone-sensing methods to investigate the relationship between people’s psychological characteristics and their physical movements through space.

I begin by reviewing the existing psychological literature. I next describe features that can be extracted from GPS data and categorize them to provide a framework for collecting, analyzing, and discussing mobility. Then, I conduct an empirical investigation demonstrating this methodology at work. One-hundred and eighteen participants provided ecological momentary assessments, reporting their places visited and emotional states (e.g., feeling stressed, relaxed, sad) four times per day for two to four weeks. In addition to these ecological momentary assessments, place and mobility data were also automatically collected for forty students using their smartphone’s GPS sensors. I supplemented these data by collecting place attributions from an independent sample of 267 participants who evaluated the situational characteristics (e.g., sociality, positivity) of the most commonly visited locations. Lastly, I look at how people perceive places and whether their judgments about a location (e.g., predictions about the personality of those most likely to visit a location) demonstrate consensus or accuracy. A lens model analysis highlights the cues underlying these perceptions.

The results show how places visited (based on self-reported places) and mobility patterns (based on sensed GPS data) are related to people’s in-the-moment emotional experiences and their enduring psychological characteristics, such as their personality and wellbeing. I also examine how one’s personality interacts with the situational characteristics of a place to affect emotional states. For instance, one key finding reveals that, in general, participants experienced more positive emotions in social places (e.g., common rooms, pubs) but that this was especially true for more extraverted individuals. Lastly, I find that though people demonstrate consensus in their judgments when virtually visiting a place, they do not show significant accuracy.

My discussion focuses on the benefits of using place and GPS-based mobility measures to understand the relationship between people and their environments, as well as the unique methodological and logistical challenges inherent to this. I conclude by discussing potential implications for privacy and research ethics and point to promising directions for future research.





Rentfrow, Peter Jason


Mobile sensing, personality, wellbeing, environmental psychology, smartphone sensing


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge