How your Facebook profile lets strangers know you better than your own family

Despite the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Sandra Matz, assistant professor of Management and Organisational Behaviour at Columbia Business School, believes psychological targeting can be used for good.


‘Digital footprints’ are the traces we leave online on a daily basis. They include the things you share and like on Facebook, the cookies on the websites you visit, your Twitter posts, your credit card purchases, and even what you listen to on Spotify.

Historically, companies had to ask people to fill in long questionnaires to get a picture of psychological characteristics of their consumers. They had nowhere near as much information as we have now.

More and more human activities – such as social interactions, entertainment, shopping and searching for information – happen in the digital space. These traces of activity reveal a huge amount about our habits, preferences, needs and who we are as people. They can reveal our political ideology, sexual orientation and personality; attributes that most people would typically assume to be private. Powered by improved hardware and software our digital footprints can be used to make highly personal judgements about our preferences, habits and psychological characteristics. Organisations have access to a huge amount of information they can attain without even asking, and then use this information to psychologically target you with ads.

Introverts and extroverts

Any type of digital footprint can be used to reveal a lot about the person. Facebook posts can be analysed and can reveal what sort of personality a person has, depending on the words they use.

Research has found that extroverts will frequently use these kinds of words in their posts:

– Party
– Can’t wait
– Girls
– Excited
– Weekend

Whereas someone who is introvert will mention solo activities:

– Manga
– Pokémon
– Internet
– Computer

Similarly, people with an agreeable personality frequently use words such as:

– Blessed
– Thanksgiving
– Amazing
– Wonderful
– Christmas
– Thank you

People with critical or competitive personalities will often use words like:

– Wtf
– Damn
– Don’t give a
– Drunk
– Hell​

Facebook allows ads to not only target social demographics (age, gender, location) but also target based on interests. As interests relate to psychological traits, Facebook permits psychological targeting.

Photos and posts

Anyone is able to create content at any time and broadcast it to the rest of the world on the internet, but this means that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the private from the public. For example, once a post or a picture is publicly shared, it becomes almost impossible to make it private again. Even if the original post is deleted by the user, it has left a digital record that is difficult, if not impossible, to remove.

Also, posts and pictures often contain information not just about the person who decided to share them. With the ability to ‘tag’ other people in pictures, information that one person might consider private might be publicly shared by others.

Does psychological targeting work?

The ability to inexpensively, quickly and unobtrusively measure psychological traits means that psychologically-informed interventions can now be applied to millions of individuals. But does it work?

Our studies have shown that it does. Targeted advertisements based on whether a person is introverted or extroverted makes customers roughly 50% more likely to make a purchase. And as psychological targeting technology is advancing quickly, it will only become more effective.

Recent studies have found that computers are currently as accurate at predicting your personality as your colleagues, friends, family members and even your spouse.

We carry our smart phones around 24/7 which means that we can be tracked almost continuously in real time. Organisations can not only make inferences about our psychological traits, but our mood, our location and the what we’re doing.

The future

Psychological targeting is a new reality, it’s out there and it’s effective.

es, it can pose a threat in the wrong hands and the predictions of personal attributes from digital traces without awareness and consent may have negative consequences. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal was a major political incident in early 2018 when it was revealed that the company had harvested the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent and used it to
influence voting in the US presidential election.

However, it also holds potential benefits for helping individuals make better decisions that suit their needs and make them happy. Predicting an individual’s attributes and preferences can be used to improve numerous products and services. For instance, digital systems and devices such as online stores and car displays could be designed to adjust their functions to best fit each user’s profile. This can help people overcome the challenge of ‘choice overload’, help them find the products and services they’re most interested in and reduce unwanted spam.

If used ethically, it provides amazing opportunities to engage with people and help people live better lives. It could help people save more, help young people find fulfilling careers, help people who suffer from depression get the help they need and so on. ​

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