Last week, Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker admitted his concerns that, by focusing on social validation, Facebook was designed to exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology”. Added to this, and amidst the current furore around fake news, imagine if adverts on Facebook could be adapted to target your personality, significantly increasing the odds that people like you will click on the ads and then buy the associated products or vote differently in an election. A timely study in PNAS shows just how easy and effective it is to target web users according to their personality, a technique that the researchers call “psychological persuasion”.
The research, led by Sandra Matz at Columbia Business School, used data previously gathered via the myPersonality.org app. Millions of people took personality tests and agreed for the app to access their history of Likes on Facebook (for instance, whether they had “liked” Lady Gaga or the TV series Battlestar Galactica).
From a subsample of 65,000 users of the app, Matz and her team identified Likes that correlated strongly with scores on one of the main personality traits, but were neutral as regards the others. For example, they found that liking the US rapper Shwayze correlated with extraversion, but not with scores on the other main personality traits, and that liking Stargate SG1 correlated with introversion, but not the other traits.
In an initial study, the researchers then created variations of a professional ad for a beauty product, either designed to appeal to extraverts (e.g. tagline: “Dance like no one’s watching, but they totally are”), or to introverts (e.g. tagline: “Beauty doesn’t have to shout”). They then used Facebook’s marketing tool to target the two ads deliberately either at people likely to be introverted (because they had “liked” a page identified earlier as correlated with introversion) or likely to be extraverted (again, because they had liked one of the pages known to be liked more often by high scorers in extraversion).
Results from this ad campaign, which reached over three million users, were clear: when the ad design matched users’ personality, it was 1.54 times more likely to lead to a purchase of the product.
A second study was similar, but this time the researchers looked for Likes that correlated with low or high openness-to-experience, a trait that’s associated with creativity, aesthetic appreciation and a desire to try out new things. For instance, liking the BBC drama The Fall correlated with high openness whereas liking the Farm Town game correlated with low openness. The researchers then created versions of an ad for a crossword app designed to appeal to people with low or high openness-to-experience. In a campaign reaching over 84,000 users, when the ad design matched users’ personality, they were 1.38 times more likely to click the ad, and 1.31 times more likely to buy the app.
Finally, Matz and her team used their approach to target ads for a bubble shooting game at a subsample of Facebook users already signed up to similar games (such as FarmVille). The pattern of likes for this group showed they are likely more introverted than average. The researchers therefore compared an ad designed to appeal to introverts (tagline “Phew! Hard day? How about a puzzle to wind down with?”) with the app company’s standard advertising spiel (i.e. “Ready? FIRE! Grab the latest puzzle shooter now! Intense action and brain-bending puzzles!”). The ad designed to appeal to introverts was 1.3 times more likely to be clicked and the product 1.2 times more likely to be purchased.
The researchers said their results showed the “effectiveness of psychological targeting in the context of real-life digital mass persuasion; tailoring persuasive appeals to the psychological profiles of large groups of people allowed us to influence their actual behaviours and choices.”
“Persuasive appeals that were matched to people’s extraversion or openness-to- experience level resulted in up to 40 per cent more clicks and up to 50 per cent more purchases than their mismatching or unpersonalized counterparts.”
They added that this approach could be used for good (for example, to boost the effectiveness of public health campaigns) or ill (imagine if online gambling companies started using these techniques, or if they were used to sway a national election campaign).
Ads tailored to your personality could just be the start. As apps and tracking software become more sophisticated (especially via wearable devices), it may be possible to gather data in real-time about users’ current mood or emotional state and then tailor ads accordingly, both in terms of their content, but also their timing. “Hence, extrapolating from what one does to who one is, is likely just the first step in a continuous development of psychological mass persuasion,” Matz and her team concluded.
Image: via Matz et al/Getty Images