How to Make Your Phone Into an Ally, Not an Enemy
“How could a phone be a shrink?” This question drove my research at Intel in 2006 and led to a prototype we called the Mood Phone. I knew the idea flew in the face of an implicit tenet of therapy: that unmediated interpersonal dialogue was essential for it to be effective. But I also knew that the traditional model of therapy was constrained by the technological limitations of the age in which it first developed.
I spent the better part of a decade training to become a clinical psychologist. I saw how powerful individual therapy can be, but I also knew that the “talking cure” — the late-19th-century paradigm of an extended dialogue between a therapist and client held in a setting removed from the client’s everyday life — didn’t scale. A good therapist is expensive, physically distant, and available by appointment only. Our problems occur in the mix of our lives, unscheduled.
So I began the Mood Phone effort as an experiment with colleagues at Intel and Columbia University. The Mood Phone was an app designed to serve as a personal therapeutic agent, with interactive prompts rooted in the psychological principles used by therapists, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy. We wanted to offer individuals a digital therapist at their disposal. The Mood Phone integrated sensors, calendar prompts, and self-tracking data to detect emotional changes. It offered visual and verbal cues to help individuals navigate their problems in real time.
One of the early hints that this tool would be more than a private therapist in your pocket came from a participant named Chandra, who told me how she used it to manage a toxic interaction. She had walked into a bar to meet friends when she heard one of them bad-mouth a mutual friend who wasn’t there. It got uglier and turned into a character assault. Chandra checked her Mood Phone and saw that it happened to cue up a helpful rhetorical question, which she showed to her friends: “Might I be villainizing?” Villainizing, an extension of tendencies to see the world in black-and-white terms, is part of an attributional style associated with hostility. By holding up a mirror in this way, Chandra interrupted the attack on her friend and perhaps even encouraged…