Listening with the EAR: An Advancement in How We Can Listen to Older Adults

I vividly remember classmates at the University of Arizona in the early 2000s speaking about amazing technology that a professor had developed and was using to study interactions between male and female faculty in the STEM sciences. What caught my ear was that it was a tool call EAR—for Electronically Activated Recorder—with non-intrusive listening capabilities for sampling individuals’ daily lives in an entirely new way.

A decade later, the EAR has made even greater strides in technological integration with devices we are all familiar with—cell phones and applications on them. A recent paper authored by the researcher who created the technology explains the advancements that have been made over the years in this technology.

While it has been found to be user friendly for ages three through 93, the EAR opens a unique avenue to study and understand the lives of older adults as they occur. The EAR is a chip-triggered microrecorder that, as of 2017, runs Android and iOS. The audio sampling records snippets of sound throughout one’s day in small chunks (e.g., 30 seconds every 12 minutes equaling 5% of a participant’s day). The short recordings ensure very minimal personal information is obtained beyond what is needed for research purposes. What’s more, suggested EAR protocol states that participants be given the opportunity to review their recordings first, and censor anything that they don’t want included.

The EAR is an exciting technologically based research method that provides opportunities for future gerontological research to examine psychologically important, subtle, and habitual behaviors exhibited by older adults that are important, but nonetheless don’t pass the threshold into conscious recognition (i.e., what is needed to answer a survey question). As an example, the author cites behaviors such as sighs, laughter, and language usage as a few things that the EAR can access.

Thus, lives of older adults can be examined on a new and exciting level as researchers are able to calibrate the frequency of behaviors that were previously unknown. In sum, the future of gerontological research is promising, as the EAR will allow us to listen to older adults in an entirely new way.


Mehl MR. The Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR): A method for the naturalistic observation of daily social behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science (2017); 26: 184-190.


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