Complexity in psychological self-ratings: Implications for research and practice

Merlijn Olthof*, Fred Hasselman, Anna Lichtwarck-Aschoff

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
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BACKGROUND: Psychopathology research is changing focus from group-based "disease models" to a personalized approach inspired by complex systems theories. This approach, which has already produced novel and valuable insights into the complex nature of psychopathology, often relies on repeated self-ratings of individual patients. So far, it has been unknown whether such self-ratings, the presumed observables of the individual patient as a complex system, actually display complex dynamics. We examine this basic assumption of a complex systems approach to psychopathology by testing repeated self-ratings for three markers of complexity: memory, the presence of (time-varying) short- and long-range temporal correlations; regime shifts, transitions between different dynamic regimes; and sensitive dependence on initial conditions, also known as the "butterfly effect," the divergence of initially similar trajectories.

METHODS: We analyzed repeated self-ratings (1476 time points) from a single patient for the three markers of complexity using Bartels rank test, (partial) autocorrelation functions, time-varying autoregression, a non-stationarity test, change point analysis, and the Sugihara-May algorithm.

RESULTS: Self-ratings concerning psychological states (e.g., the item "I feel down") exhibited all complexity markers: time-varying short- and long-term memory, multiple regime shifts, and sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Unexpectedly, self-ratings concerning physical sensations (e.g., the item "I am hungry") exhibited less complex dynamics and their behavior was more similar to random variables.

CONCLUSIONS: Psychological self-ratings display complex dynamics. The presence of complexity in repeated self-ratings means that we have to acknowledge that (1) repeated self-ratings yield a complex pattern of data and not a set of (nearly) independent data points, (2) humans are "moving targets" whose self-ratings display non-stationary change processes including regime shifts, and (3) long-term prediction of individual trajectories may be fundamentally impossible. These findings point to a limitation of popular statistical time series models whose assumptions are violated by the presence of these complexity markers. We conclude that a complex systems approach to mental health should appreciate complexity as a fundamental aspect of psychopathology research by adopting the models and methods of complexity science. Promising first steps in this direction, such as research on real-time process monitoring, short-term prediction, and just-in-time interventions, are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number317
Number of pages16
JournalBMC Medicine
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 8-Oct-2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Ecological momentary assessment
  • Experience sampling method
  • Complexity
  • Complex system
  • Psychopathology
  • Mental health
  • Time series
  • Personalized medicine
  • 1/F NOISE

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