HCII PhD Thesis Defense: Siyan Zhao, "Understanding the Effect of Everyday Social Interactions on Well-Being"

Monday, February 22, 2021 - 1:00pm
Zoom Virtual Presentation - ET (see announcement)

Thesis Committee:
Jason I. Hong (CMU, co-chair)
Robert E. Kraut (CMU, co-chair)
Mayank Goel (CMU)
Eden Litt (Facebook)

Humans are social creatures in nature. Through interactions, we form and maintain relationships, which provide benefit to our physical and mental well-being. However, not all interactions are beneficial as they inevitably involve both positive and negative experiences. Research has shown that while positive interactions (those that are pleasant and enjoyable) are associated with better well-being, negative interactions (containing conflicts or poor treatment) can bring more harm. Therefore, this thesis examines the factors that make an interaction positive or negative and whether they have any impact on one's well-being.

This thesis approaches this by examining the effect of interaction details, i.e., what happens in a social interaction such as who is involved, what joint activities are done, where the interaction occurs, whether there are exchanges of support behaviors, and etc. Specifically, the thesis queries how these interaction details affect the positive or negative experience of the interaction and well-being. Three separate longitudinal survey studies with a total of over 800 local and national participants showed that interactions that involve close partners or contain joint activities and exchanges of support are rated more positively than their counterparts. More importantly, these interaction details have both direct and indirect impact on well-being. For example, interactions where people provide or receive support have direct association with better well-being at the end of the day. Interactions that involve close ties and doing joint activities have indirect associations with better well-being by contributing to more positive interactions.

This theoretical contribution, i.e., what happens in a social interaction can impact on well-being, has technical implications. One benefit to studying social interactions through interaction details is to have a tangible way to measure aspects of one’s social life that matter for well-being. The thesis explores the possibility of using sensors embedded in mobile phones to automatically predict occurrences of social interactions and what happens in them. While the prediction performance did not work as well as hoped, it performed better than change, suggesting that there is useful information in the mobile sensed data to predict the medium of an interaction, whether it involves a close tie, and what activity is done. Based on the work, the work discusses barriers and challenges to practical deployment of such systems in the near-term.

In summary, this work contributes: 1) theoretical understanding of how interaction details affect the experience of the interactions and well-being; 2) practical and actionable recommendations on changes one can make to their social lives for better well-being; and 3) technical implications that mobile sensors can passively measure one's social life in real-life and lessons learned on how to better achieve this.

Queenie Kravitz

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