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Every webpage you visit, your online purchases, the songs you listen to on the internet, pages you follow on Facebook or any likes you leave under posts on social media create your digital footprint, which is a gold mine of information about you, information that can be used to influence your behavior. According to a recent study conducted by a team of researchers led by Dr. Michał Kosiński, psychologist from the University of Stanford and graduate of SWPS University, digital footprints can reveal not only your likes and dislikes, but they can also disclose information about your character traits.

Our research has proved that digital footprints left in cyberspace can be used to build psychological profiles of internet users. The traits that reflect someone’s preferences and needs, on a much deeper level may be used to effectively influence their behavior, by aligning the messages with the user’s psychological profile, for example the degree to which they are extroverted or introverted.

Our previous studies indicated that we can very precisely predict people’s psychological traits, if we get an approval to access their Facebook profiles. In our latest study, we have shown that companies can target users with ads, based on their psychological profile without the users’ consent. For example, if liking “Socializing” on Facebook correlates with the personality trait of extroversion, and liking “Stargate” goes hand in hand with introversion, then targeting users associated with each of these ‘Likes’ allows us to target extroverted and introverted audiences.

We found that matching the content of persuasive messages to individuals’ psychological characteristics resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases than in case of mismatched ads or un-personalized messages.

How does psychological targeting work?

We conducted three studies involving more than 3.5 million users on Facebook. During the study users were targeted with Facebook ads, which were either aligned with their psychological profile or not. At the end of the study, we measured users’ reactions to the ads by counting the number of clicks on the ads (i.e. clicks) and the product purchases resulting from clicking on the ads (i.e. conversions).

In one of the experiments, for instance, the we chose an online beauty retailer and created customized ads that could be targeted towards either extroverts or introverts, as identified by their Facebook ‘Likes’. We found that matching the content of persuasive messages to individuals’ psychological characteristics resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases than in case of mismatched ads or un-personalized messages.

The study indicated that extroverts responded more positively to advertising messages when the beauty retailer’s ad was focused on extroverted preferences and interests (e.g. showing a group of women in a social situation, dancing, and having fun, accompanied by an ad copy that stated: “Dance like no one’s watching (but they totally are)”). Meanwhile, introverts responded more positively to those ads that focused on introverted preferences (e.g. a single woman by herself in a quiet environment, enjoying her “me-time,” accompanied by an ad copy stating: “Beauty doesn’t have to shout”).

How can psychological targeting help people overcome their limitations?

Persuasive messages aligned with people’s psychological needs, can influence behaviors of large groups of people, can also help them to make better decisions and can even improve their quality of life.

Targeted messaging aligned with users’ psychological profiles may effectively encourage smoking secession or money saving habits, in much the same way as it encourages product purchases. For example, advertisements addressed to extroverts could show that savings would allow them to take that special vacation they have been dreaming about. Conversely, when targeting introverts, ads could highlight the possibility of investing one’s savings in making their home a more comfortable refuge to escape from the hectic world outside. In both cases, psychological targeting could help people to see the benefits of saving, and eventually change their money-related behaviors.

The dark side of psychological targeting

However, it should be noted that psychological targeting may pray on human weaknesses and influence behaviors that might result in negative outcomes. For example, online casinos could target ads at individuals who have psychological traits associated with pathological gambling.

Over the past year, psychological targeting has been covered extensively in the media, in the context of its ability to influence the outcome of elections. While the veracity of this claim remains uncertain, our findings illustrate how psychological mass persuasion could be used to manipulate people to behave in ways that are neither in their best interest nor in the best interest of the society.

Next steps: Fueling critical debate

Research shows that widely available technical solutions enable psychological targeting. The discussion about these technologies should focus on what societies can and should do to prevent negative impact of psychological targeting.

The main goal of our research was to show general public and the key decision makers – such as elected officials and business leaders – just how important and timely this topic is. We must answer many important questions, such as: how do we, as consumers and as society, want to use this new technology? In what circumstances do we want to use psychological targeting and when do we want to restrict its usage? When should we use it and when we shouldn’t? What types of legal contracts should approve the use of psychological targeting technology and how transparent about the use of this technology these contracts should be?

An important aspect of our research is that it can help to establish a system of checks and balances in the form of policies, regulations and technological counter-measures, which would ensure that psychological targeting serves as a driver for good rather than evil.

The research results have been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in the article titled “Psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion”, authored by Sandra Matz - Columbia University, Michał Kosiński - Stanford University, Gideon Nave - Chicago University and David Stillwell - Cambridge University.

Michał Kosiński

About the Author

Michał Kosiński - Assistant Professor in Organisational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from University of Cambridge, an M.Phil. in Psychometrics, and a M.S. in Social Psychology. He is also a graduate of SWPS University. He is a leading expert in psychometrics, a data-driven sub-branch of psychology. His research focuses on studying humans through the lenses of digital footprints left behind while using digital platforms and devices.

Dr. Kosiński coordinates the myPersonality project, which involves global collaboration between over 200 researchers, analyzing the detailed psycho-demographic profiles of over 8 million Facebook users. While at Cambridge University, he started an open-source online adaptive testing platform Concerto and ApplyMagicSauce.com predictive engine.

Previously, Dr. Kosiński was the Deputy Director of the University of Cambridge Psychometrics Centre, a researcher at Microsoft Research, and a post-doc at Stanford's Computer Science Department.

In 2013, he was listed among the 50 most influential people in Big Data by DataIQ and IBM. He was also deemed as one of the 2015 Association for Psychological Science’s Rising Stars.