Researching Daily Life

Daily life research is the study of what people do in their natural environments on a day-to-day basis. Researching daily life involves the use of a research methodology commonly referred to as Experience Sampling methodology (ESM), Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), or the Daily Diary Method. Surveys are the main method of data collection, using a repeated measurement schedule over a set period of time – for instance once a day for a period of two weeks.

Experience Sampling Methodology was introduced by Larson and Csikszentmihalyi (1983). The majority of example studies stem from areas of psychology. The goal is to capture a comprehensive picture of what an individual’s daily experiences, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are like. The methodology involves a within-individual research design. Daily experiences are considered episodic ‘states’ that fluctuate across time within persons.

An hypothesis on could test with this research design, is whether an individual judge arrives at a different decision after a good night’s sleep compared with days following lower sleep quality. Many (psychological) processes are inherently manifested at the within-individual level and involve a comparison across days rather than between research subjects.

Sometimes the fluctuations are the main topic of interest in the study. For instance, one might explore whether high variability in justice perceptions among civil defendants (for instance arising from fluctuations in how one is treated) negates the very benefits that higher justice levels otherwise provide for trust in judges (example based on Matta et al., 2020). Perhaps high variability is even more detrimental than a consistently low level of perceived justice.

Daily life research requires study participants to respond to multiple daily surveys, delivered to them at (a) random, (b) fixed or (c) signal-contingent timing schedules, or (d) event-contingent times throughout the day. Data collection is intensive, at least once a day, typically lasting for a week or longer. Participants respond to the surveys while being in their natural environments rather than in research labs. The methodology can prove useful in cases where the variables or phenomena of interest are fleeting (such as emotional responses) or relatively rare (such as domestic violence), or where retrospective accounts are problematic (for instance, due to recall biases). A comparison with other methodologies can be found in the table below.

Of course, using a research design that involves multiple daily observations also carries disadvantages. It involves a greater investment of time, effort and potentially money, not only on the side of the researcher but also on the side of study participants (i.e., risk of participant fatigue). When preparing for data collection, it is important to ensure sufficient power at both levels, that is, enough day-level observations (within-individual N) and enough individuals participating in the study (between-individual N).

Other quantitative methodology


Cross-sectional design

Measuring trait-like, stable variables; testing between-individual associations

Measuring state-like, fleeting variables; testing within-individual associations

Longitudinal design

Interested in changes over an extended period of time (trend analysis)

Interested in short-term fluctuations that do not necessarily follow trends

Experimental design

Manipulation of independent variable(s); high internal/causal validity

Naturally occurring events and experiences; high ecological validity


  • Dimotakis, N., & Ilies, R. (2013). Experience-sampling and event-sampling research. In A. B. Bakker & K. Daniels (Eds.), A day in the life of a happy worker (pp. 85-99). Psychology Press.

  • Larson, R., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1983). The experience sampling method. New Directions for Methodology of Social and Behavioral Science, 15, 41-56.

  • Matta, F. K., Scott, B. A., Guo, Z. A., & Matusik, J. G. (2020). Exchanging one uncertainty for another: Justice variability negates the benefits of justice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105, 97-110.

  • Silvia, P. J., & Cotter, K. N. (2021). Researching daily life: A guide to experience sampling and daily diary methods. American Psychological Association.