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The Internet Knows You Better Than Your Spouse Does

The traces we leave on the Web and on our digital devices can give advertisers and others surprising, and sometimes disturbing, insights into our psychology

  • Users’ digital footprints disclose certain preferences and characteristics, such as their personality or mood.
  • Companies are very interested in such data. Automated language analysis is already being used in the hiring of personnel. And advertising seems to be more successful when its message is adapted to the personality or mood of the customer.
  • These technological advances open opportunities not only for commerce but for public health. Among those possibilities: smartphone apps may in the future recognize when a bipolar patient is slipping into a depressive phase and can inform the person’s physician.
  • But the technology poses risks. Unless it is managed carefully and ethically, it can invade privacy.

If you enjoy computerized personality tests, you might consider visiting Apply Magic Sauce (https://applymagicsauce.com). The Web site prompts you to enter some text you have written—such as e-mails or blogs—along with information about your activities on social media. You do not have to provide social media data, but if you want to do it, you either allow Apply Magic Sauce to access your Facebook and Twitter accounts or follow directions for uploading selected data from those sources, such as your history of pressing Facebook’s “like” buttons. Once you click “Make Prediction,” you will see a detailed psychogram, or personality profile, that includes your presumed age and sex, whether you are anxious or easily stressed, how quickly you give in to impulses, and whether you are politically and socially conservative or liberal.

 

Examining the psychological profile that the algorithm derives from your online traces can certainly be entertaining. On the other hand, the algorithm’s ability to draw inferences about us illustrates how easy it is for anyone who tracks our digital activities to gain insight into our personalities—and potentially invade our privacy. What is more, psychological inferences about us might be exploited to manipulate, say, what we buy or how we vote.

 

SURPRISING ACCURACY

It seems that our like clicks by themselves can be pretty good indicators of what makes us tick. In 2015 David Stillwell and Youyou Wu, both at the University of Cambridge, and Michal Kosinski of Stanford University demonstrated that algorithms can evaluate what psychologists call the Big Five dimensions of personality quite accurately just by examining a Facebook user’s likes. These dimensions—openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism—are viewed as representing the basic dimensions of personality. The degree to which they are present in individuals describes who those people are.

 

The researchers trained their algorithm using data from more than 70,000 Facebook users. All the participants had earlier filled out a personality questionnaire, and so their Big Five profile was known. The computer then went through the Facebook accounts of these test subjects looking for likes that are often associated with certain personality characteristics. For example, extroverted users often give a thumbs-up to activities such as “partying” or “dancing.” Users who are especially open may like Spanish painter Salvador Dalí.

 

Then the investigators had the program examine the likes of other Facebook users. If the software had as few as 10 for analysis, it was able to evaluate that person about as well as a co-worker did. Given 70 likes, the algorithm was about as accurate as a friend. With 300, it was more successful than the person’s spouse. Even more astonishing to the researchers, feeding likes into their program enabled them to predict whether someone suffered from depression or took drugs and even to infer what the individual studied in school.

 

The project grew out of work that Stillwell began in 2007, when he created a Facebook app that enabled users to fill out a personality questionnaire and get feedback in exchange for allowing investigators to use the data for research. Six million people participated until the app was shut down in 2012, and about 40 percent gave permission for the researchers to obtain access to their past Facebook activities—including their history of likes.

 

Researchers around the world became very interested in the data set, parts of which were made available in anonymized form for noncommercial research. More than 50 articles and doctoral dissertations have been based on it, in part because the Facebook data reveal what people actually do when they are unaware that their behavior is the subject of research.

 

COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

One obvious use for such psychological insights beyond the realm of research is in advertising, as Sandra C. Matz of Columbia University and her colleagues (among them Stillwell and Kosinski) demonstrated in a 2017 paper. The team made use of something that Facebook offers to its business customers: the ability to target advertisements to people with particular likes. They developed 10 different ads for the same cosmetic product, some meant to appeal to extroverted women and some to introverts. One of the “extrovert” ads, for example, showed a woman dancing with abandon at a disco; underneath it the slogan read, “Dance like no one’s watching (but they totally are).” An “introvert” ad showed a young woman applying makeup in front of a mirror. The slogan said, “Beauty doesn’t have to shout.”

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