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Comparing Signal-Contingent and Event-Contingent Experience Sampling Ratings of Affect in a Sample of Psychotherapy Outpatients


Experience sampling methods are widely used in clinical psychology to study affective dynamics in psychopathology. The present study examined whether affect ratings (valence and arousal) differed as a function of assessment schedule (signal- versus event-contingent) in a clinical sample and considered various approaches to modeling these ratings. A total of 40 community mental health center outpatients completed ratings of their affective experiences over a 21-day period using both signal-contingent schedules (random prompts) and event-contingent schedules (ratings following social interactions). We tested whether assessment schedules impacted 1) the central tendency (mean) and variability (standard deviation) of valence or arousal considered individually, 2) the joint variability in valence and arousal via the entropy metric, and 3) the between-person differences in configuration of valence-arousal landscapes via the Earth Mover’s Distance (EMD) metric. We found that event-contingent schedules, relative to signal-contingent schedules, captured higher average levels of pleasant valence and emotional arousal ratings. Moreover, signal-contingent schedules captured greater variability within and between individuals on arousal-valence landscapes compared to event-contingent schedules. Altogether, findings suggest that the two assessment schedules should not be treated interchangeably in the assessment of affect over time. Researchers must be cautious in generalizing results across studies utilizing different experience sampling assessment schedules.

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  1. We used this approach, rather than Bolger et al. (2003) approach of dropping individuals with entries that are more than two standard deviations below the mean for the sample, because our specific analyses depend on a kernel density estimate of the two-dimensional space (e.g., valence and arousal). That is, a low number of completed surveys does not provide enough data to accurately estimate the person’s surface. Thus, we do not think the conventional wisdom applies here.


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We thank J. Wesley Scala, M.S., and Emily A. Dowgwillo, M.S., for assistance in developing training material and coordinating the collection of data, and Kathleen Bohomey, Colin Carey, Caroline Curran, Wendi Falk, Sarah Forsythe, Laura Frey, Caroline Gooch, Jessica Grom, Brittani Hollern, Lauren Lipner, Kristin McLaughlin, Megan Moyer, Joanna Pantelides, Megan Parker, Jacqueline Proczynski, Carolina Ribo, Silvia Rizkallah, Aimee Sohnleitner, and Alyssa Spaw for their assistance in data collection. We also thank Jennifer Fox and Allison Clark for their assistance in the recruitment of participants. Finally, we thank Drs. William D. Ellison, Peter Molenaar and Joshua Smyth for consultation.


This research was supported by grants from The Pennsylvania State University Social Science Research Institute (principal investigator: Levy), and secondary grants to William D. Ellison from a dissertation grant from The Pennsylvania State University Research and Graduate Studies Office, and grants from American Psychoanalytic Association and International Psychoanalytic Association.

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Correspondence to Sindes Dawood.

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Sindes Dawood, Michael N. Hallquist, Aaron L. Pincus, Nilam Ram, Michelle G. Newman, Stephen J. Wilson, and Kenneth N. Levy declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Dawood, S., Hallquist, M.N., Pincus, A.L. et al. Comparing Signal-Contingent and Event-Contingent Experience Sampling Ratings of Affect in a Sample of Psychotherapy Outpatients. J Psychopathol Behav Assess 42, 13–24 (2020).

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  • Signal-contingent schedules
  • Event-contingent schedules
  • Affective variability
  • Entropy
  • Earth Mover’s Distance