Social media preferences reveal personality traits

07:53 Tuesday 13th January 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: Are you on Facebook? Are you on Twitter? Have you ever thought about what your online profile says about you? Researchers at Cambridge University have devised a way to tell your personality, to tell what you’re like, simply by looking at your Facebook likes. And it is surprisingly, slightly terrifyingly accurate. David Stillwell is from the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge and is one of the authors of a new study. Morning David.
DAVID STILLWELL: Good morning.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So explain first of all for people who maybe aren’t on Facebook or don’t use it a lot, what is a Facebook ‘like’?

DAVID STILLWELL: So a Facebook like is that thumbs-up icon that you see. So you can like pretty much anything in the world in existence. You can like brands, you can like music, you can like films. Anything consumer-oriented, there’ll be a page you can like.
DOTTY MCLEOD: OK. And what have you been looking into?
DAVID STILLWELL: We’ve been looking at the relationship between people’s likes and their psychology or their personality. And what we found is that with just an average person, an average person’s number of likes which is about two hundred and twenty ..
DOTTY MCLEOD: Two hundred and twenty!
DAVID STILLWELL: Yes it’s amazing how much they add up over time. So if you like 40 per year, and then you’ve been on it for five years, then you’ve already got two hundred likes. It’s very easy to think, you know, I’m not on Facebook that often. But as I say, they build up over time.
DOTTY MCLEOD: OK. And so what can you tell from what people like?
DAVID STILLWELL: Well so we used some machine learning algorithms to see quite how accurate we could be. And it came up with a number. But then the question is what does that number really mean in human terms.
DAVID STILLWELL: So we decided to compare it to how a person can assess someone else’s personality. So is the computer better than let’s say someone’s wife, someone’s families, someone’s friend or someone’s work colleague at predicting personality. And what we found is that with the average number of Facebook likes which is again about two hundred and twenty, the computer is almost as accurate as someone’s spouse, which is more accurate than someone’s family, more accurate than someone’s friend, and way more accurate than someone’s work colleague. So actually, with just ten likes, the computer can be as accurate as someone’s work colleague.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Really. Really. So a computer which hasn’t got a brain and doesn’t have emotions, it can define and tell people’s personalities better than someone who has actually met you.
DAVID STILLWELL: That’s one of the interesting things for the future. So we’re trying to .. researchers are trying to design an AI that can work with us as humans rather than just see us as other machines. And what this suggests is that the computer can treat you like a person, with your own personality. So it makes available to the scenario from the film Her, where a guy starts dating his very advanced AI.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Yes. I find this slightly frightening. Is there an element of you that finds it slightly frightening, that dumb machines can tell so much about us?
DAVID STILLWELL: Yes, certainly it’s different people find it more frightening than others. I certainly find it quite creepy.
DAVID STILLWELL: From my perspective the important thing is that when people are actually making these kinds of predictions, and when companies are using them to target advertising, or when they’re using them to personalise our online experiences in other ways, that they should tell us that’s what they’re doing. And then that makes it a lot more transparent, and it makes me a lot more comfortable with what’s being done with my data. So at the moment the trouble is you put your data into various online programs, into your search engine history, into your email, as well as social networks, and these companies hoover up your data and they do things with it, and we don’t know what it is. So I’d like to see more transparency from companies, so that if you get an advert that’s been targeted at you for a specific reason, perhaps they could tell you what that reason is. And then that makes it a lot less creepy.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Have you put your own Facebook profile through this mathematics?
DAVID STILLWELL: Well as you can imagine, since I’m the author, I make sure that my profile is pretty accurate.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Right. OK. So what did it tell you about yourself? Was it pretty accurate?
DAVID STILLWELL: Yes. It matched my self-report, so when I fill in a questionnaire, and when I get the online system, then they seem to match up pretty accurately.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Match up exactly. Oh that’s scary. I find that a bit scary. Maybe you don’t. David Stillwell there from the Pyschometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge. One of the authors of this new study into how your Facebook likes are uncannily good at predicting what you are actually like in real life, on some occasions, better than your own husband or your own wife at describing your personality.


Can Facebook predict your personalty?