Apr 222012
 April 22, 2012  Posted by  Featured News, Misc

The CNET story by Liane Yvkoff  on how your car will monitor your mood  got some notice on Twitter.  Some people raised the creepiness factor, and some raised concerns that the data would be turned over to insurance companies via “black box” recordings and then used against us in the event of an accident. Some of us just got a bit goofy, like wondering what the mood sensors would do with a robotic driver.

But it’s the creepiness factor that I want to get back to for a moment.

Back in the 1970’s,  one of the big fads was mood rings – rings you’d wear as jewelry that would supposedly reflect your mood to you and to whoever glanced at the ring.  The premise behind the mood ring was that the warmer your peripheral temperature, the more relaxed you were and the better mood you were in.

Since most women’s hands are colder than men’s, the mood ring craze made a lot of women very nervous about why they were presumably not in a good mood. Indeed, after wearing a mood ring for a few days, I found myself getting incredibly angry that it never showed me I was in a good mood. Into the trash it went. My mood brightened immediately.

But the mood rings represented an interesting phenomenon – people were interested in monitoring their own emotional state using what was essentially a biometric monitor.  The beauty, of course, was that individuals got to choose whether they wanted to have their mood monitored and when.   That sense of choice or control somewhat overcame any small problems with actual accuracy of the jewelry.

Mood rings weren’t the only self-selected biometric “device” of the 1970’s, though.  Around the same time we saw the use of  “stress cards” (sometimes referred to as “relaxation cards”).  They were easy to use – you simply gently squeezed the card for a few seconds or so until you got a reading of your stress or relaxation level.  The physiological premise underlying  the card was the same as mood rings – the warmer your peripheral temperature (an indicator of circulation), the less anxious or stressed you supposedly were – or conversely, the more relaxed you were.

Like the mood rings,  stress cards were a self-selected biometric monitor that you could choose to use or not use.

Back in the laboratory (insert maniacal cackling sounds here), some of us were experimenting with providing individuals with machine-provided feedback about their physiological state so that they could reduce their stress or anxiety – “biofeedback”  was all the rage. As one of the relatively early researchers in the field, I was disappointed to discover that my super-duper expensive equipment wasn’t really any more effective than me just teaching research participants how to relax without the equipment.  It made for a challenging dissertation defense, to say the least.

But it was all about self-regulation, and since “auto” as a prefix means “self,” some of the therapies at the time referred to auto-regulation (e.g., autogenic therapy).

Almost 40 years later, auto manufacturers are giving new meaning to “auto-regulation”  as they will  monitor our mood via sensors and then feed that back to us.

This type of auto-monitoring goes far beyond what we ever attempted in the 1970’s, and while I marvel at the technological advances, I remain concerned that we have left the “self” and choice out of the equation.

In the 1970’s, we could choose to monitor ourselves.  In the 2020’s, will we have any choice left? If the sensors detect poor mood, will our cars suddenly start playing Mozart or some other mood-enhancing music? Will the computers in our cars throttle our speed like a governor if the data suggest we might be at risk of impaired driving?

How far will “auto-regulation” go?

Carousel image of angry driver © Luna4 | Dreamstime.com

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