As Facebook gets bigger and weaves its way into more and more of our lives, the pushback against the social media giant is also growing.

The company's founding president recently called the company out for manipulating psychology in a way that's good for its bottom line but bad for humans. Psychologists are fretting about what so much screen time is doing to our kids. And, of course, Congress (and everyone else) is trying to wrap their heads around what "fake news" on the platform is doing to our democracy.

In short, in the minds of many, Facebook is already teetering on the line that separates "move fast and break things" innovation from a Godzilla-like destruction. And a new study out of Columbia University isn't going to do anything to push the social media behemoth away from the dark side in the minds of many.

Ads finely tuned to your personality

These days advertisers on Facebook can target you by your zip code, age, interests, or a host of other factors. But what if Facebook could actually figure out a way to peer into your head, figure out your personality and then tailor what you see based on your most essential characteristics? That scenario isn't science fiction in the slightest, the new study by Sandra Matz at Columbia Business School shows.

For their research, Matz and her team used data from app myPersonality.org, which both offers users personality tests and collects information about what they've liked on Facebook. By comparing the results of 65,000 personality tests with Facebook behavior, the researchers were able to identify certain interests and groups that were strongly linked with specific personality traits.

For instance, liking rapper Shwayze pretty much guarantees you're an extrovert, while clicking to demonstrate your enthusiasm for Stargate SG1 is good evidence that you're an introvert. The team then used this data to craft two variations of ads for a beauty product that were specifically designed to appeal to specific personality types - introverts saw "Beauty doesn't have to shout," while the extrovert targeted ad read,  "Dance like no one's watching, but they totally are."

How did this affect the performance of the ads? "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," reports The British Psychological Society research Digest blog. Follow-up studies that targeted other "Big 5" personality traits, like openness, found similar results.

Good news for advertisers, bad news for democracy?

How you respond to this study probably depends on who you are. Marketers are likely stroking their chins and mumbling, "interesting" while their minds whirl with the possibilities. As consumers, many of us will view this is as just another small step down the road towards the truly creepy. But those who will be really concerned are those already alarmed about how social media is affecting our politics and society.

The technique used by Matz and her colleagues sounds quite similar to techniques that were widely employed in the last election and which some commentators suggest propelled President Trump to victory (this article offers a fascinating deep dive into the subject if you have a few minutes to spare).

Tailored beauty ads are unlikely to do any harm (except perhaps to less digitally savvy lipstick manufacturers), but the idea that we may soon be living in information bubbles so finely crafted as to suit our very personalities and bombarded with political messages designed to push our specific buttons, has worrying implications for civic conversation. How can you debate issues and reach any sort of consensus if we're not even seeing the same world? When does marketing shade into propaganda and mind control?

But whatever you think of these developments, they're unlikely to be the end of the road when it comes to personalizing the information social media serves up. "Ads tailored to your personality could just be the start," insists BPS. "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 conclude.

Is that sentence exciting or terrifying to you?

Published on: Nov 28, 2017