Personality and the online world: Are you your social media?

For years, social media have been hot topic in society – and of course the world of academics had to follow. This is no surprise given how much social media have changed and shaped our way of living.

Many interesting questions come to mind with regard to social media, but there is one question in particular that catches the personality researcher’s eye: can we use social media profiles to predict an individual’s personality?  In other words, are we for instance able to estimate correctly how extraverted a person is, just by taking a close look at the person’s Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account?

Intuitively, the answer swings two ways. It all depends on why individuals use social media. Is it to reflect true personality or to present an idealized version of themselves? If the former is true, it should be possible to predict an individual’s personality by using social media. But if it is the latter, it will be very difficult to create accurate predictions.

Do we use social media to be a better version of ourselves?

To get to our final answer, we need to address this first. Back and colleagues collected Facebook profiles, and asked the Facebook users to fill in the Big Five personality questionnaire. They also asked users to describe themselves in the way they ideally would like to be. Meanwhile, the researchers rated the Facebook profiles on levels of openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion and neuroticism. Analyses were run and… no idealization of personality was found! The participants seemed to reflect their actual personality on social media.

So can we predict personality based on social media?

The answer seems to be: yes. Back and colleagues were able to predict personality by using Facebook pages quite accurately. However, it must be noted that some personality traits were easier to predict right than others: extraversion and openness to experience were recognized most easily, neuroticism the least.
More support for the use of social media comes from the latest series of meta-analyses on this topic. In these analyses, all the information that individuals shared on their social media was used to predict the Big Five personality traits. And indeed, results indicated that this could be done with remarkable accuracy.

Conclusion

It seems that we are indeed able to predict somebody’s personality accurately based on social media activity. This has important implications for research (and ultimately for services such as commercial and public health provision!). With regard to research, analysing social media instead of distributing personality questionnaires can be a huge time-saver. Furthermore, when we work with questionnaires, there is always the risk of bias: the responder may not interpret the question correctly, or he may give a socially desirable answer, leaving us with unreliable data. At last, working with social media data may reduce the risk of this type of bias.

It looks like we should all lend a hand to the field of personality psychology and start uploading more content to our social media! What do you think, are you “you” on social media? Should researchers make more use of social media in their studies? But why are some traits easier to detect than others? And are there disadvantages of social media use in research? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below!


If you are interested in reading the articles mentioned in this post, references and links are provided here:

*Back, M. D., Stopfer, J. M., Vazire, S., Gaddis, S., Schmukle, S. C., Egloff, B., & Gosling, S. D. (2010). Facebook Profiles Reflect Actual Personality, Not Self-Idealization. Psychological Science21(3), 372–374. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797609360756

Azucar, D., Marengo, D., & Settanni, M. (2018). Predicting the Big 5 personality traits from digital footprints on social media: A meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences124, 150-159. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.12.018

*This article has also been used during one of the lectures in the Research Master Individual Differences and Assessment! In the course Extended Assessment Methods we discussed the method section, and critically reflected on the study in its entirety.  

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