Can Facebook predict your personality?

'Liking' things on Facebook may give away more than you realise. A new study used 'likes' to predict users gender, sexuality and personality...
14 March 2013

Interview with 

David Stillwell, The Psychometrics Centre, University of Cambridge


'Liking' things on Facebook may give away more than you realise. A new study used 'likes' to predict users gender, ethnicity, sexuality and personality. We were joined by David Stillwell from the Psychometric Centre at the University of Cambridge who told us about the paper and the publicly accessible online tool 

David - So, what we do is we take Facebook likes and then we put them A computertogether with people who have taken our personality and IQ tests, and then we see whether we can predict people's personality just from their Facebook likes. And so, that's what is. Anyone can go to that website. Log in with Facebook. It takes out Facebook likes and then tries to predict their personality.

Kat - So, before we explore this a bit in-depth, would anyone like to share what it came out as because for me it says that I'm liberal and artistic, yes, I get that. Well-organized, hmm, assertive and competitive, absolutely, emotional, I guess so. But also, it says I'm shy and reserved, but it said that one of the likes that was most indicative of my profile was liking corsets and I do spend a lot of my weekends prancing about in a corset. So, I don't see how that makes me shy and reserved. Anyone else on the team want to share?

Chris - David, what did you get?

David - Well, I was quite interested in my results because it does describe some aspects to my personality quite well, so I got the whole artistic angle as well and they also managed to pick up that I'm quite introverted. So, that's quite an interesting, quite subtle thing I think to pick up on. Yeah, I think it describes me relatively well. I'd like to have a look in exactly how they've determined this more interestingly, but yeah.

Chris - Laurie, what did you find?

Laurie - Well actually, myself and Kat, I don't think should get on at all because apparently, I'm conservative and traditional where I've been liberal which is a bit shocking, and also, shy and reserved which I'm sure....

Chris - We can tell.  Yes, that definitely is you Laurie all over. I mean, I just don't believe it David Stillwell because it told me I calm and relaxed. I mean, how about that?  It also said I was highly organised and artistic. I think it should've said autistic more than artistic to be honest if I'm quite frank. Kat...

Kat - But you have to be a bit organised to run a show like this. But David, let's find out a little bit more about how this actually works because I mean, what you've got here is very bipolar things. You're either this or you're this. How did you kind of work out what the different categories were from the personality test that you've got?

David - Sure, so normally, with the personality test, we don't just say, you're either extroverted or introverted. So, in our actual study, we were correlating the continuous variable of extroversion with our prediction from likes. But it's just on You Are What You Like, we thought it's easier if it's simplified and then also, you know, it's a bit boring if you're near the middle. So, rather than saying that someone is average, we say something a bit more interesting.

Kat - And so generally, when you look at this kind of thing, how accurate do you find those sort of predictions of people's personality just from their Facebook likes?

David - So, for openness for example and which is one of the personality traits where about 80% is good as a personality test which is pretty amazing when you consider that no questions had been asked. It's just completely based on the data that you kind of collected on Facebook. For IQ, it's about half as good as an IQ test and we also predicted some other things such as sexuality. So, if you've got a male homosexual and a male heterosexual, and then just from their Facebook likes, 88% of the time, you can predict which is which. We did the same thing with ethnicity. So, an African American versus a Caucasian American, 95% of the time, we can say which is which just from their likes.

Chris - We've heard from Ben who says, "I mean, to a certain extent, this just reflects the image that people want to portray, doesn't it?"

David - But that can apply to lots of situations. I mean, in real life, you decided which clothes to wear. When you're at work, you pretend that you're more organised than you may be at home. So actually, one of the good things about Facebook is it's very hard to fake because not only is it years that you spend sort of building up these likes, but also, your friends on Facebook as well. So, if you suddenly decide to like something that they know doesn't match you then they're likely to say something about it.

Chris - And you can pick that up.

Kat - The thing that I find a little bit scary about all of this is that there's more and more talk about online privacy and what companies like Facebook are doing with our data. I mean, we've had sort of a laugh. Knowing You Are What You Like is quite funny. Am I really shy and reserved? But how could data like this actually be used by online companies and is there anything we can do to protect ourselves and protect our privacy?

David - Sure, so it's worth saying first of all that there are benefits. So, my idea of situation would be, if I go to a website then instead of that website showing me every advert or every product that it's trying to sell, if I could just tell it a little bit about me then maybe it could just show me these three products which are actually likely to be interesting to me. And I'd prefer that because I see adverts for dating and mascara, and I have no interest in getting mascara. So, it's just kind of annoying and a bad user experience.

Chris - You do really David, just be honest.

Kat - What about the slightly, the more sinister thing? How can people protect themselves online?

David - Sure, so one situation that you could imagine happening in the UK is, if you like for example something that suggests that you're introverted, Terry Pratchett. So, if an employer came to your profile, swore that it looks like you're an introverted person, then if they're looking for someone who works well in teams and those kinds of buzz words, then they may not think that you're someone who could fit in their organisation so they may not invite you to interview. So, I recommend that people have a look at the things that they like especially because they do build up over time and decide whether they really match what you as a person want to be associated with.


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