Describing a Person’s Personality Based on Social Media – Part I

Dr David Stillwell teaches at the University of Cambridge and is also the Academic Director at the university in the Psychometrics Centre. He has many published papers to his credit which include how the computer can predict a person’s personality with great accuracy based on their use of social media, how consumers can be targeted for advertising based on their habits on social media and many others. He has been interviewed by BBC, Sky News, CNN and a host of other stations. We have this opportunity for an interview with him.

Dr. Stillwell you have said that describing a person’s personality based on social media can be as accurate as how well a spouse knows the partner. Can you tell us more about this?

David Stillwell
David Stillwell / Photo: From the Archive of Dr. Stillwell

In our research we created algorithms that use a Facebook user’s Likes to predict their personality. For example, people who like skydiving are predicted to be more extroverted. We compared the ability for the computer to predict someone’s personality against how well someone’s friends, family or spouse can predict their personality. For users with 225 Facebook Likes, which was the average number of Likes Facebook users had in 2015, the computer could predict their personality more accurately than a work colleague, a friend, and a family member. In fact, it was as accurate as a spouse.

We put our algorithms online so people can see what their own predicted personality is from either their Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn data.


It has also been said that a spouse really gets to know the partner only after a divorce. Please comment on this.

I guess it depends on the relationship!


How are computer based personality analysis more accurate than those made by humans?

The computer is not prone to the stereotypes that humans have.

Computers have two main advantages. One is that they have more data to work with: We used 55,000 users’ Likes to build our algorithms, but the average person can only keep up e stereotypes that humans have. For example, people think that goths are quite low in agreeableness, but our data shows that people who like goth-related FB pages score higher than people expect on the agreeableness trait. It’s an incorrect stereotype.


What are broadly, the different personality types depending upon Facebook usage?
There are some examples in our paper, pick your favourites!

It has been said that those who use Facebook find themselves more dissatisfied the more they use it. Can you tell us more about this?

Quite a lot of research has looked into whether people who use Facebook are more dissatisfied with their lives. It tends to find conflicting results – some studies find it makes people unhappier and some studies find no difference. More recently researchers have looked into whether it’s the way that people use Facebook that matters. What might be the case is that people who use it passively to just see what their friends are doing – just scrolling through the feed without interacting – end up unhappier. But people who use it actively to post photos, write comments, etc. aren’t negatively affected or may get a positive benefit.


Does money actually buy happiness?

Lots of research finds that money does buy happiness, but only up to a certain point.

Lots of research finds that money does buy happiness, but only up to a certain point. In the USA it is about $80,000/year. Earning more than that doesn’t seem to make much difference, probably because with that salary you can already afford a reasonable lifestyle with enough food and few debts, but beyond that being able to buy luxurious items doesn’t help very much.

Quite a few researchers have started looking at what people should spend their money on to increase their happiness. It seems that experiences matter more than physical objects, and buying things for other people makes you happier than spending the same money on yourself. We did our own research using data from bank transactions. We found that people who spend money on things that match their personality are happier than people who spend money on things that mismatch. For example, introverts were happier when they spent money on books whereas it didn’t make extroverts any happier. In other words, what you buy is at least as important as how much you buy, but to buy the right things you need to understand your own personality.

Unhappy with an inactivity on the social media
Unhappy with an inactivity on the social media / Photo: Shutterstock

According to some researchers about 80 percent of all that is communicated by individuals on social media is a lie. What is your opinion?

But people do exaggerate – they present themselves in the best light.

I don’t personally see much outright lying on my social media. But people do exaggerate – they present themselves in the best light. They share their favourite holiday photos from when it was sunny rather than the day that it rained. But social media still contain enough kernels of truth for a person’s real personality to come through. A neat research paper demonstrated this. The researchers showed Facebook profiles to strangers and asked them to guess the personality of the person who had that Facebook page, and the results showed that the strangers could guess it. So there’s definitely something true in people’s profiles even though they’re to some extent manipulated to be more positive than reality.

It’s a bit like a CV – people write only good things on their CV but employers still use them to get an idea of what a job candidate is like, because enough information comes through despite the positive exaggerations.


Also according to some researchers, social media has led to more nastiness among the users at the individual level. Please tell us about your views on this.

I believe that it’s possible and it’s because often newsfeeds are optimized for engagement – commenting or liking. If you write something neutral on social media, no one comments or likes, so the algorithm doesn’t prioritise the post. If you write something outrageous or polarising then it’ll get a reaction, and those posts will be put at the top of the newsfeed because the algorithm will think they’re really engaging. Optimizing for engagement makes social media apps stickier and their owners richer, but also encourages people to write extreme things.

Photos: Photo: From the Archive of Dr. Stillwell; Shutterstock

Part II shall be published on Friday July 24, 2020.

Read more interviews from Youth Time Magazine:

What Are We Looking For in Our Relationships – An Interview with Dr. Samantha Joel


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