How many posts, pictures and pages have you ‘liked’ on Facebook since the thumbs up button was first introduced in 2009. You probably can’t even remember most of them. But the web never forgets.

And your ‘digital footprint’ is actually a surprisingly accurate self-portrait.

Forget assessment tests or psychological screening questions, employers have a new secret weapon to predict your behaviour and performance. According to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, computers can predict your personalities better than your co-workers, family and friends, or even your spouse. All they need is access to your Facebook likes.

The researchers asked 86,220 Facebook users to fill out a personality questionnaire measuring what psychologists call the “Big Five” personality traits: conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness. These subjects were selected from a pool of 6 million people who had taken lengthy psychometrics tests for a previous research project. Friends and family members of the participants also provided assessments of each participant’s personality.

These were then compared to personality profiles generated by comparing the subjects’ Facebook likes. Surprisingly, the computer model proved the most accurate.

The more Facebook likes a person has, the more accurately the computer model can assess their personality. With just 10 likes, the computer was able to judge personality more accurately than the subject’s coworkers; with 70 likes, than friends and roommates; with 150 likes, than family members; and with 300 likes, better than spouses.

According to the study, the movies, music, TV shows, books and events you like can reveal whether you are liberal and artistic vs. conservative or conventional; organized or spontaneous; cooperative or competitive; neurotic or calm; introverted or extraverted.

For example, likes for Buddhism, The Daily Show, Salvador Dali or William Shakespeare were associated with a ‘liberal and artistic’ personality versus the movie How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, and rap and hip-hop music were indicators of a more conservative and conventional personality.

Fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Kurt Cobain, and “Reservoir Dogs” are seen as neurotic compared with calm people who like ESPN, “Entourage,” and snowboarding.

Extraverts like Snookie, tanning, Gucci and beer pong, while introverts enjoy “The Matrix”, Wikipedia, “Doctor Who,” and thinking. (‘Thinking’ of course well-known to be the polar opposite activity of ‘beer pong’.)

Many government agencies and large employers regularly use psychometric personality testing to help them screen candidates. Those tests invite people to respond with what they think is the most desirable response rather than the one that most accurately reflects their thinking. The study’s authors point out that an automated analysis of your digital footprint would not only be less expensive and faster than traditional testing, but could also generate more accurate results.

The report projects astronomic growth for this kind of computerized profiling because computer models are rapidly increasing their sophistication at the same time as the amount of information being shared about individuals online is growing exponentially. This will lead to “computer models outperforming humans even more decisively.”

So, like it or not, you are what you like. (Or, of course, you could just make your Facebook ‘likes’ private.)


Peter Harris
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