Using machine learning to derive just-in-time and personalized predictors of stress: Observational study bridging the gap between nomothetic and ideographic approaches

Alan Rozet, Ian M. Kronish, Joseph E. Schwartz, Karina W. Davidson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Background: Investigations into person-specific predictors of stress have typically taken either a population-level nomothetic approach or an individualized ideographic approach. Nomothetic approaches can quickly identify predictors but can be hindered by the heterogeneity of these predictors across individuals and time. Ideographic approaches may result in more predictive models at the individual level but require a longer period of data collection to identify robust predictors. Objective: Our objectives were to compare predictors of stress identified through nomothetic and ideographic models and to assess whether sequentially combining nomothetic and ideographic models could yield more accurate and actionable predictions of stress than relying on either model. At the same time, we sought to maintain the interpretability necessary to retrieve individual predictors of stress despite using nomothetic models. Methods: Data collected in a 1-year observational study of 79 participants performing low levels of exercise were used. Physical activity was continuously and objectively monitored by actigraphy. Perceived stress was recorded by participants via daily ecological momentary assessments on a mobile app. Environmental variables including daylight time, temperature, and precipitation were retrieved from the public archives. Using these environmental, actigraphy, and mobile assessment data, we built machine learning models to predict individual stress ratings using linear, decision tree, and neural network techniques employing nomothetic and ideographic approaches. The accuracy of the approaches for predicting individual stress ratings was compared based on classification errors. Results: Across the group of patients, an individual's recent history of stress ratings was most heavily weighted in predicting a future stress rating in the nomothetic recurrent neural network model, whereas environmental factors such as temperature and daylight, as well as duration and frequency of bouts of exercise, were more heavily weighted in the ideographic models. The nomothetic recurrent neural network model was the highest performing nomothetic model and yielded 72% accuracy for an 80%/20% train/test split. Using the same 80/20 split, the ideographic models yielded 75% accuracy. However, restricting ideographic models to participants with more than 50 valid days in the training set, with the same 80/20 split, yielded 85% accuracy. Conclusions: We conclude that for some applications, nomothetic models may be useful for yielding higher initial performance while still surfacing personalized predictors of stress, before switching to ideographic models upon sufficient data collection.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12910
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Ecological momentary assessment
  • Exercise
  • Just-in-time interventions
  • Machine learning
  • Personal informatics
  • Self-quantification
  • Stress-behavior pathway
  • Weather


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