We KNOW You Will Like This: How Businesses Will Be Using Your Personality to Sell You More

Personality tests litter the internet. 

A rare few are legitimate, well-researched and appropriately worded tests that can give a pretty accurate indication of an individual’s tendencies and preferences in theoretically sound areas.  

Most are simply not worth the megabytes they take up – but, hey, if they are a fun diversion, or maybe start the process of informed self-discovery, then what’s not to like?

One online personality test however, based around respected and established research, is available free of charge to the largest social networking site in the world and is currently being used to collect information from any of its 687 million users who complete it and sign the disclaimer allowing it to be used. 

“myPersonality” is in fact a number of personality questionnaires developed for Facebook by graduate psychology researchers David Stillwell and Michal Kosinski.  At their last count, there are currently over a million monthly users of the questionnaire and a significant proportion allow the researchers access to their anonymised data.

In academic terms this is a goldmine – albeit one of a self-selected sample of Facebook users who choose to complete the questionnaire – and Stillwell and Kosinski go to great lengths to make both the data and the platform available to other researchers.  We can expect some fascinating research findings to emerge very soon.

However, Facebook users are customers.  They are targeted by advertisers constantly and they already give away much invaluable personal information that help advertisers target their audiences and send selective messages to those people most likely to buy.  Will big business be able to use the data on someone’s personality to sell to them better?

There are two questions here really.  First, will this data be available to advertisers and second, what would they make of it?

Answering number one is not entirely straightforward.  There is very little information available to the general user/reader on how else the data might be used.  The disclaimer says

“my Personality may use the information you provide us in an anonymous manner such that it cannot be traced back to you.  You can withdraw your consent for your information to be used in this way at any time by resetting your personality profile, at which point your information will be deleted”

So the researchers say they “may use” the data but give no indication here as to what they will use it for. 

Much of what they do is likely to lead to interesting and widely disseminated psychological research.  However, any freely shared personal information which helps businesses to be more efficient and successful is going to draw a crowd.  These young researchers are probably sitting on a fortune here if they continue to collect this data and then decide sell it to advertisers.

And so to question 2:  how are businesses likely to use it.  Well, perhaps the most likely use of this data is to use it to tailor the way that advertisers sell to us, rather than necessarily alter the products or services themselves.  Granted, there may be certain products that appeal to certain personality types: the more neurotic amongst us may be more inclined to buy books which pander to our anxieties, for example how to be more popular, what our symptoms really mean, how we can sleep better and so on. 

However a more sophisticated, and arguably manipulative, use of the data might be that messages about any product, tailored to tap into our personality type, may be much more persuasive and successful than a blanket, one-size-fits-all advertising approach.  The more businesses know about our individual style, the more they will be able to “wrap” the product in a form that instantly appeals to us. 

If the more sensation seeking Facebook users see an advert for shoes that highlights their fit with any number of extreme sports, while the lower risk takers see the anti-slip properties of the same shoes emphasised, these shoes will appeal quickly and emotively to both different groups. 

Kerching!

Perhaps I am taking a leap forwards that  hasn’t yet been taken by the owners of the data.  After all, the data is anonymised and there has been no suggestion that advertisements are currently targeted on the basis of personality.  However, the technology is there.  Is it only a question of time before all the advertising that comes our way is targeted not just to our demographic data, but also to our “unique” personality?

I have completed many, many personality questionnaires in my time, and shared the profiles with lots of people.  But for now, this is one personality questionnaire that I will be giving a miss. 

Maybe I am one of the “suspicious” Generation Xers less likely than younger people to give away data on the internet.  Or maybe I am a low risk-taker and a cautious decision maker and am just naturally inclined to distrust anything new.  Maybe.  But your personality is probably different to mine and you could find out more online.

How do you feel about it?

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