Turns out you can size up personality just by looking at a person's Facebook profile. While that may not seem like a big deal, it is providing fodder for academics who are trying to predict temperament based on the things we post online.
If such predictions prove accurate, employers may have good reason to poke around our Facebook pages to figure out how we would get along with others at the office. And Pentagon officials want to use personality assessments to make better decisions on and off the battlefield.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Maryland predicted a person's score on a personality test to within 10 percentage points by using words posted on Facebook.
"Lots of organizations make their employees take personality tests," said Jennifer Golbeck, an assistant professor of computer science and information studies at the University of Maryland. "If you can guess someone's personality pretty well on the Web, you don't need them to take the test."
Golbeck and her colleagues at the university's Human-Computer Interaction Lab surveyed the public profiles of nearly 300 Facebook users this year. They looked at users' descriptions of their favourite activities, TV shows, movies, music, books, quotes and membership in political organizations. They also looked at Facebook's public "About Me" and "blurb" sections.
The 300 participants then took a standard psychological exam that measures the "big five" personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
People who tested as extroverts on the personality test tended to have more Facebook friends, but their networks were more sparse than those of neurotics, meaning their friends were less likely to know one another than were the friends of other Facebook users. People who tested as neurotic had denser networks of people who know one another.
The researchers also found that people with long last names tended to have more neurotic traits, perhaps because a lifetime of having one's long last name misspelled may lead to a person expressing more anxiety and quickness to anger, according to the study. People who tested high on the neurotic scale also tended to use a lot of anxiety-associated words, such as worried, fearful and nervous, on their posts.
They also use words describing ingestion: pizza, dish, eat. Golbeck says she can't explain that last correlation.
"You'd have to get a psychologist or psychiatrist on that one," she said. "It could be a deep correlation that we can't understand on the surface."
Golbeck says that gauging a person's personality is important to anticipating how well they will get along with others in school or a job.
But critics say you can't use social media to figure out human behaviour. Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that people who spend a lot of time online may be more isolated from the world than in touch with it. Trying to understand someone's real personality from their postings on Facebook and Twitter misses too much information, according to Turkle, author of 'Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.'
"If we are taking what people do on Facebook as a measure of their sociability, does it measure how well they can apologize and say they are sorry?" asked Turkle, a clinical psychologist. "Does it measure their emotional strength or weakness?"
Turkle, who interviewed hundreds of people for her book, said many felt they must perform on social media sites to act cooler, more interesting or funnier than they really are.
Golbeck's approach to social media and personality profiling does have its supporters. People can exaggerate aspects of their personality when using social media, said Cliff Lampe, a professor of media studies at Michigan State University. "It's like any tool. We usually sort it out over time."
Lampe said his undergraduate students have too much trust in what they learn or whom they meet online. "Maybe older people have more experience and been burned a few more times," he said. But his students are savvier about understanding privacy settings that keep strangers (or prospective employers) from seeing embarrassing bar-hopping photos.
Figuring out whom and what we can trust online is becoming more important as social media networks keep getting bigger. Facebook now says it has 600 million active users worldwide (nearly 150 million in the United States); Twitter claims nearly 200 million.
Golbeck is getting attention from both big social media companies and the military. The Army Research Laboratory is interested in predicting how soldiers will get along in the field - so-called unit cohesion - and is funding her studies of personality. Another Defense Department unit, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, is funding Golbeck's development of a battlefield board game - and eventually a computer-based game - that involves trust and how soldiers can navigate across enemy terrain. Social media firms want her to help them profile their users.
As good as Facebook is in revealing personality, Twitter is even better, Golbeck said.
"I think of Twitter as the lounge of your dorm," Golbeck said. "You walk in, there are lots of people, and you have stuff to say and you tell them. What Twitter gives you is this insight about what the world says in this context, what people are happy or sad about."
Golbeck said as Facebook and Twitter evolve, users will get savvier about how they use social media. "It's about sharing important things with a smaller group of people," she said.
(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post)