Everything big data claims to know about you could be wrong

June 19, 2018 by Yasmin Anwar, University of California - Berkeley
Everything big data claims to know about you could be wrong
o understand human health and behavior, it’s better to study individuals, not groups, new study finds (Image from Alex Prager movie Face in the Crowd).

When it comes to understanding what makes people tick—and get sick—medical science has long assumed that the bigger the sample of human subjects, the better. But new research led by UC Berkeley suggests this big-data approach may be wildly off the mark.

That's largely because emotions, behavior and physiology vary markedly from one person to the next and one moment to the next. So averaging out data collected from a large group of human subjects at a given instant offers only a snapshot, and a fuzzy one at that, researchers said.

The findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, have implications for everything from mining social media data to customizing health therapies, and could change the way researchers and clinicians analyze, diagnose and treat mental and physical disorders.

"If you want to know what individuals feel or how they become sick, you have to conduct research on individuals, not on groups," said study lead author Aaron Fisher, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. "Diseases, mental disorders, emotions, and behaviors are expressed within individual people, over time. A snapshot of many people at one moment in time can't capture these phenomena."

Moreover, the consequences of continuing to rely on group data in the medical, social and behavioral sciences include misdiagnoses, prescribing the wrong treatments and generally perpetuating scientific theory and experimentation that is not properly calibrated to the differences between individuals, Fisher said.

That said, a fix is within reach: "People shouldn't necessarily lose faith in medical or social science," he said. "Instead, they should see the potential to conduct scientific studies as a part of routine care. This is how we can truly personalize medicine."

Plus, he noted, "modern technologies allow us to collect many observations per person relatively easily, and modern computing makes the analysis of these data possible in ways that were not possible in the past."

Fisher and fellow researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands used statistical models to compare data collected on hundreds of people, including healthy individuals and those with disorders ranging from depression and anxiety to and panic disorder.

In six separate studies they analyzed data via online and smartphone self-report surveys, as well as electrocardiogram tests to measure heart rates. The results consistently showed that what's true for the group is not necessarily true for the individual.

For example, a group analysis of people with depression found that they worry a great deal. But when the same analysis was applied to each individual in that group, researchers discovered wide variations that ranged from zero worrying to agonizing well above the group average.

Moreover, in looking at the correlation between fear and avoidance – a common association in group research – they found that for many individuals, fear did not cause them to avoid certain activities, or vice versa.

"Fisher's findings clearly imply that capturing a person's own processes as they fluctuate over time may get us far closer to individualized treatment," said UC Berkeley psychologist Stephen Hinshaw, an expert in psychopathology and faculty member of the department's clinical science program.

Explore further: Analysis finds schizophrenics have thinner cerebral cortex, on average

More information: Aaron J. Fisher et al. Lack of group-to-individual generalizability is a threat to human subjects research, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1711978115

Related Stories

Analysis finds schizophrenics have thinner cerebral cortex, on average

June 6, 2018
Individuals with schizophrenia, on average, have a thinner cerebral cortex, the largest part of the brain that controls higher intellectual functions and motor activity, compared to healthy people, according to an international ...

New diagnostic model for psychiatric disorders proposed

April 5, 2017
University of Otago researcher Associate Professor Martin Sellbom is part of a group of 50 leading international psychologists and psychiatrists who have put forward a new, evidence-based, system for classifying mental health ...

Study shows childhood psychiatric disorders increase risk for later adult addiction

July 3, 2017
Children's health and well-being while growing up can be indicators of the potential health issues they may encounter years later. A study published in the July 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and ...

Only 1 in 10 patients with anxiety disorders receives the right treatment, study suggests

January 24, 2018
Jordi Alonso, director of the Epidemiology and Public Health programme at the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute (IMIM), was commissioned by World Mental Health to lead an international study into the adequacy of ...

Depression in young people affects the stomach, anxiety the skin

November 25, 2016
Mental disorders and physical diseases frequently go hand in hand. For the first time, psychologists at the University of Basel and Ruhr University Bochum have identified temporal patterns in young people: arthritis and diseases ...

Research finds cognitive-behavioral therapy effective in combatting anxiety disorders

June 28, 2012
Whether it is a phobia like a fear of flying, public speaking or spiders, or a diagnosis such as obsessive compulsive disorder, new research finds patients suffering from anxiety disorders showed the most improvement when ...

Recommended for you

Taking a catnap? Mouse mutation shown to increase need for sleep

September 24, 2018
Sleep is vital for adequate functioning across the animal kingdom, but little is known about the physiological mechanisms that regulate it, or the reasons for natural variation in people's sleep patterns.

Evidence that addictive behaviors have strong links with ancient retroviral infection

September 24, 2018
New research from an international team led by Oxford University's Department of Zoology and the National-Kapodistrian University of Athens, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), shows ...

New findings on the muscle disease Laing early-onset distal myopathy

September 24, 2018
New avenues are now being opened toward treatment of Laing distal myopathy, a rare disorder that causes atrophy of the muscles in the feet, hands and elsewhere. In a study published in the journal PNAS, researchers have identified ...

Know someone sick? Your own smell might give it away

September 24, 2018
Odors surround us, providing cues about many aspects of personal identity, including health status. Now, research from the Monell Center extends the scope and significance of personal odors as a source of information about ...

Reconstructing healthy liver cells using a nanomaterial-based matrix 

September 24, 2018
NUS pharmaceutical scientists, together with clinicians from the National University Health System (NUHS), have developed a nanomaterial-based hydrogel that encourages amniotic epithelial cells (a type of stem cell) to grow ...

Japanese team creates human oogonia using human stem cells in artificial mouse ovaries

September 21, 2018
A team of researchers with members from several institutions in Japan has successfully generated human oogonia inside of artificial mouse ovaries using human stem cells. In their paper published in the journal Science, the ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

chemhaznet1
5 / 5 (1) Jun 19, 2018
Obviously, the worlds for profit mega-corporations want us all to fit into nice and neat little categories that they can exploit for more gains. Just wait until your health insurance company demands that your doctor doesn't use a cancer treatment on you -- because of what your data says even though your file is far from accurate by either their cost saving measures, hacking, or simple file corruption -- and they use another treatment that kills you instead. Those days are almost here folks.
dan42day
5 / 5 (1) Jun 19, 2018
I wonder if that is why half the people I know that use drugs to get their blood pressure down to "normal" feel like crap whenever their BP falls below 140/80.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.