If Your Likes on Social Media Predict Your Personality as Accurately as a Personality Test, and This Information Can Be Used to Guide Your Thoughts and Behavior, Do You Still Have Free Will?
From Product Preferences to Your Views on Ukraine, Your Thoughts May Not Be Your Own
I came across this preprint the other day: “We Are What We Watch: Movie Plots Predict the Personalities of Those who ‘Like’ Them.”
The most interesting bit to me was not the part that was covered in the media, i.e., that people’s personalities, described in terms of the Five-Factor Model (FFM) of personality (Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) predict the type of movies they like, although that was mildly interesting.
If you know anything about the FFM of personality, also known as the Big Five, these links between personality and movie genre preferences will hardly surprise you. It’s possibly why the article, while interesting to read, doesn’t seem to have been published yet.
If you don’t already know about the FFM, it’s easy to find information online about it. This Wikipedia article is a good start, and if you want to take a short-form version of the test and see where you land, you can find a test here. Come back and tell us whether you learned anything surprising!
Anyway, here’s the part I found really interesting about this preprint:
“The Big Five can be accurately predicted, at the individual level, from digital footprints, such as Facebook Likes, Tweets, and even profile pictures (e.g., Kosinski et al. 2013; Nave et al. 2018; Quercia et al. 2011), and such predictions allow advertisers to reach populations that differ on these traits using existing digital platforms (Matz et al. 2017). Thus, these traits are theoretically important…, as they allow customization of marketing mixes to particular personality types that are more likely to respond to them.”
In other words, you don’t need to take a personality test like the one linked above (which reveals a lot of useful information about you) and hand it over to marketers, propagandists, or anyone else who might like to reach you and target their appeals to you, based on what’s likely to “work” on you. Marketers and propagandists can just buy the data from the companies where you willingly provide it in the form of Likes and other indirect information.
I read the articles cited above to see what they said. Kosinski et al., just by using Likes on Facebook, showed that they could predict people’s FFM personality traits (see the five items in green in the chart below; emotional stability is the inverse of neuroticism):
As the caption notes, “all correlations are significant at the p < 0.001 level.” But the predictive value lies not just in inferring your personality traits. These authors’ model was effective in predicting and inferring a whole host of personal information, including “inferring whether users’ parents stayed together or separated before users were 21 years old. Although it is known that parental divorce does have long-term effects on young adults’ well-being, it is remarkable that this is detectable through their Facebook Likes. Individuals with parents who separated have a higher probability of liking statements preoccupied with relationships, such as ‘If I’m with you then I’m with you I don’t want anybody else.’ ”
The authors are likewise able to predict your intelligence and sexual orientation from your Likes: “For example, the best predictors of high intelligence include ‘Thunderstorms,’ ‘The Colbert Report,’ ‘Science,’ and ‘Curly Fries,’ whereas low intelligence was indicated by ‘Sephora,’ ‘I Love Being A Mom,’ ‘Harley Davidson,’ and ‘Lady Antebellum.’ Good predictors of male homosexuality included ‘No H8 Campaign,’ ‘Mac Cosmetics,’ and ‘Wicked The Musical,’ whereas strong predictors of male heterosexuality included ‘Wu-Tang Clan,’ ‘Shaq,’ and ‘Being Confused After Waking Up From Naps.’ Although some of the Likes clearly relate to their predicted attribute, as in the case of No H8 Campaign and homosexuality, other pairs are more elusive; there is no obvious connection between Curly Fries and high intelligence.”
I would beg to differ: a love of curly fries and high intelligence go together like…well, like curly fries and high intelligence.
Kosinski et al. note that “the predictability of individual attributes from digital records of behavior may have considerable negative implications, because it can easily be applied to large numbers of people without obtaining their individual consent and without them noticing.” No sh*t.
Surprisingly, researchers just need a few Likes to predict your personality. For example, Nave et al. found that “Facebook Likes for musical artists…predicted individual differences in personality.”
These authors “found reliable correlations between the music Likes-based personality predictors and all of the Big Five personality traits (all p < .001)…. [The] highest predictive accuracy was for openness, … followed by extraversion,... conscientiousness, … neuroticism, … and agreeableness…. To put our results in perspective, the predictive accuracy of the music Likes-based model for openness and neuroticism was roughly the same as a personality prediction made by a coworker. For the other traits, accuracy ranged between 55% (agreeableness) and 77% (conscientiousness) of the accuracy of a work colleague’s prediction.”
Finally, Quercia et al. did an analysis of Twitter users, and while their study seemed to provide less detail than the other two, it basically agreed in its findings: “user personality can be easily and effectively predicted from public data.”
These three articles tell us some of what can be gleaned from our social media profiles (and not just the stuff that’s visible to our friends — the stuff that Facebook and Twitter sell to others).
Matz et al., on the other hand, in their article “Psychological Targeting as an Effective Approach to Digital Mass Persuasion,” tell us a bit about what can be done with those insights. Their abstract sums it up:
“the investigation of large-scale psychological persuasion in the real world has been hindered by the questionnaire-based nature of psychological assessment. Recent research, however, shows that people’s psychological characteristics can be accurately predicted from their digital footprints, such as their Facebook Likes or Tweets. Capitalizing on this form of psychological assessment from digital footprints, we [tested] the effects of psychological persuasion on people’s actual behavior…. In three field experiments that reached over 3.5 million individuals with psychologically tailored advertising, we [found] that matching the content of persuasive appeals to individuals’ psychological characteristics significantly altered their behavior as measured by clicks and purchases. Persuasive appeals that were matched to people’s extraversion or openness-to-experience level resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases than their mismatching or unpersonalized counterparts. Our findings suggest that the application of psychological targeting makes it possible to influence the behavior of large groups of people by tailoring persuasive appeals to the psychological needs of the target audiences” (emphasis added).
They go on to say,
“[This] paper demonstrates the effectiveness of psychological mass persuasion—that is, the adaptation of persuasive appeals to the psychological characteristics of large groups of individuals with the goal of influencing their behavior. On the one hand, this form of psychological mass persuasion could be used to help people make better decisions and lead healthier and happier lives. On the other hand, it could be used to covertly exploit weaknesses in their character and persuade them to take action against their own best interest, highlighting the potential need for policy interventions.”
This is exactly what Cambridge Analytica (remember them?) and similar organizations were said to have done to influence the 2016 elections and the Brexit vote. Forget “the Russians” — the Russians maybe threw some crude, un-targeted memes out into social media land. It’s more concerning that the candidates themselves hired companies like Cambridge Analytica to do targeted marketing and persuasion to the American public. A Cambridge Analytica spokesperson protested in 2017, “There’s nothing magical or Pied Piper-ish about it. It doesn’t give us special powers over people. We’re all trying to better use the behavioral sciences to do our work in more effective ways.”
No special powers — just a 40-50% greater chance of having an effect when Matz et al. targeted their appeal to a few Likes — whereas Cambridge Analytica uses 5,000 purchased data points to determine who you are and what will work on you. Nothing magical — just manipulative and persuasive, and targeted to your personality.
Coincidence or Not? Our Ugly Post-2016 Landscape
If this research I just described was ramping up in the early to mid-2010s, and we saw our nice predictable world go a little mad after the 2016 US elections and the Brexit vote, is that just coincidence?
Or is “psychological persuasion” — on social media, from the algorithms, from media, from targeted political ads and emails, from the candidates themselves — having a much greater effect on us than we realize? These are not crazy, overt, mind-control tactics; they’re the differences in these types of ads (which I’ve borrowed from Matz et al.) — these are the sort of thing that make people 40-50% more likely to click and purchase, when appropriately targeted:
Just translate these tactics to the political ads you get, the media sources you choose, and the interpretations of current events you believe.
For example, while I expected the usual political consensus shoved down our throats when there was first trouble in Ukraine, I was surprised by how quickly even people who usually disagree on every aspect of politics all seemed to come to a consensus that “Putin is a madman! He’s behaving incomprehensibly!” in absence of evidence that this successful politician who’s led a major world power since 1999 has taken leave of his senses.
(He’s done a really bad thing — it’s sad that I have to explicitly say that. But has he gone crazy? I don’t think we have evidence for that.)
So, What About Ukraine and Russia? Have We All Suddenly Changed Our Views?
Do we Americans have a recent history of thinking Russia is an enemy and Putin is a dangerous madman? No. As recently as the end of January 2022, Pew Research tells us that “Republicans and Democrats Alike View Russia More as a Competitor than an Enemy of the US.” At the end of February 2022 — less than a month ago — Americans told Gallup researchers that the most important problem facing the US was the government / poor leadership, followed by the pandemic, the economy in general, and inflation in particular. The “situation with Russia” was near the bottom of the list.
Now less than a month later, we have constant Ukraine coverage, and the prevailing opinion is that Putin is a dangerous madman whose actions make no sense and who might unleash nuclear war on us. In other words, in a very brief span of time, people of all political stripes seem to have developed a new, unified opinion. The American people seem now (coincidentally?) predisposed to let our government do whatever it wishes — imposing harsh sanctions, selling arms to Ukraine, and even creating a no-fly zone, which essentially means “war with Russia.”
Do you wonder why and how public opinion turned so hard and fast? Do you wonder why, in all this non-stop Ukraine coverage, there seems to be little to no discussion of what would cause a stable, decades-long world leader to take these actions, and why our government seems content to dismiss him as crazy? I do.
Is Putin Just Crazy?
Remember Scott Ritter? He’s a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who was part of the UN group responsible for making sure Iraq was disarmed and had no WMD. He was one of the lone voices saying in the run-up to war in Iraq that of course Iraq didn’t have WMD. He was publicly dragged for his trouble throughout the mainstream media. He was called a traitor, an idiot, and worse by our media and government, because while it was obvious to the rest of the world — and to Scott Ritter — that Iraq did not have WMD, it was not what the US wanted its people to believe.
Anyway, that’s Scott Ritter. He was one of the only people telling us in 2003 that the US government was wrong and stupid about WMD, and he was right.
Now, he’s telling us the US government is wrong and stupid about what’s happening between Russia and Ukraine, and we should at least give him a fair hearing. Lee Camp interviewed him in early March, and Ritter had a somewhat more nuanced opinion than “Putin is suddenly a madman.” The full interview goes into much more depth than I can provide here, but according to Ritter, the problem has been building for 15 years and is hardly unexpected:
One of the root causes according to Ritter is informal NATO expansion. In 2007 Putin said further eastward expansion was unacceptable. The US ambassador to Russia at the time, Bill Burns (now the CIA director) wrote a memorandum saying that if Ukraine joined NATO, Russia would “use military force, destroy Ukraine, seize Crimea and seize the Donbas.”
Essentially, according to Ritter’s analysis, it’s not that Putin woke up one morning having lost his mind, but rather, “NATO and Ukraine conspired together to create the conditions for a war that they knew 13 years ago was inevitable if they continued this policy… A lot of people don't seem to understand that both things can be true: what Russia is doing is wrong, it can be illegal under international law, you can be opposed to it, and also you can see how NATO pushed Russia closer and closer to doing this…ignored their security concerns…. Russia is now surrounded by an enemy military alliance in many ways.”
So these concerns had been building since 2007. In 2014, the Obama Administration made matters worse when they engineered a coup to overthrow Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych. George Friedman, CEO of Stratfor (which describes itself as “the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform”) described this as “the most blatant coup in history.”
This coup benefitted, among others, Igor Kolomoisky, a billionaire oligarch who owns a media empire and who, according to substack writer Ragnar Forseti, “has been a top funder of the Azov Battalion since it was formed in 2014. He has also bankrolled private militias … and has personally deployed them to protect his financial interests.”
In other words, this oligarch tied to the coup has been funding the Ukranian neo-Nazis, whom the Russians perceive to have been gaining more and more influence in their own back yard.
Kolomoisky also owns the TV station where, before he was president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky was an actor in a popular TV comedy. (And Kolomoisky also happens to be “Hunter Biden’s boss and benefactor at Burisma Holdings” —but that would be the subject of a whole ’nother post.)
“In 2019, Kolmoysky’s media channels gave a big boost to Zelensky’s presidential campaign, while Kolmoysky even provided security, lawyers, and vehicles for Zelensky during his campaign. …
“The Pandora Papers showed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his TV production partners were beneficiaries of a web of offshore firms created in 2012, the same year Zelensky’s production company entered into a deal with Kolomoysky’s media group, which allegedly received $41 million in funds from Kolomoysky’s Privatbank.”
As The Atlantic describes it, “Zelensky was elected president with no previous political experience. Before that, he played a television character who was elected president with no previous political experience.”
Ritter describes Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky as having been “hand-picked” by Kolomoisky, and “literally the puppet of this oligarch” who funds the neo-Nazis, and “one of the things Zelensky did is change the constitution so that NATO membership is now constitutionally required” — the hard line that Bill Burns said in 2007 couldn’t be crossed.
Ritter claims that since the 2014 coup, in Ukraine “every single president lives under the threat of imminent insurrection should he do anything that deviates from the platform of the far right wing neo-Nazis.”
He further claims that “Every brigade in the Ukrainian military now has a battalion of Nazis. …They are everywhere. They're in the security service, the intelligence service, the military. They've infiltrated the whole thing, and these are people who aren't afraid to kill in defense of their ideology, so Zelensky is 100 percent the puppet of these people. One of the reasons why he has such a hard-line position [against the Russians] is he can't take a soft line.
“You want proof? One of the members of the first negotiating team that met with the Russians …, he was somebody who said ‘Maybe we should think about neutrality to bring an end this war.’ What happened to him when he got back? Shot two times in the head. Assassinated. … The Nazis killed a negotiator because they didn't like his negotiating position.”
But why is Putin acting now? In response to the point we often hear in the US media — that Ukraine in fact has not joined NATO, so what’s the problem? — Ritter replies that Ukraine is in fact essentially part of NATO:
“Last year we sent 20,000 NATO troops into Ukraine to train [the Ukrainian army]. We sent…around 12,000 Ukrainian troops outside of Ukraine to train with NATO in every country in Europe. They use the same tactics, the same communication, the same weapons, they wear the uniforms. They are a proxy army of NATO, and so the Russian perspective is: ‘We can't have a NATO proxy here, so your military is going bye-bye. You could create another military, but it's not going to be a NATO proxy; it'll be a Ukrainian military probably equipped by us, so our “advisors” are there.’ …I’m not saying the Russians are right, but that's their position: ‘You're not going to be part of that.’ ”
According to Ritter, “This war will end the moment Ukraine changes its constitution [removing the requirement to join NATO.]”
“Yeah,” he concludes, “you don't get that that context on CNN.”
Instead we’ve all been led to believe that Putin is crazy. He is lusting for World War III. He is maybe worse than Hitler. He is maybe willing to use nukes to get what he wants. Why and how does a nation of 340,000,000 believe that so readily?
At the very least, this is a lot more complicated and nuanced than “Putin is crazy and power-hungry.” That the US public seems to accept that at face value tells me that we have become very easy to psychologically persuade and influence.
What do you think?