Almost every step you take online is recorded: the websites you visit, the purchases you make, the songs you listen to, the messages you post — and read — on social media sites. These digital footprints provide a treasure trove of data that can reveal not only what you like and how you see the world, but also who you are as a person, making it far easier for others to influence your behavior.
Across three studies, targeting more than 3.5 million users on Facebook, my co-authors and I found that a single “like”on a Facebook post can provide insight into an individual’s psychological profile, and that profile can be used to influence the behavior of large groups of people.
By tailoring messages to individuals based on these inferred psychographic dimensions (e.g., the degree to which an individual is extroverted or introverted), it is possible to significantly increase the likelihood that people will take a specific action. In one study, matching marketing appeals to targets’ levels of extraversion lead to a nearly 50 percent increase in purchases.
The basic principle behind this form of personalized persuasion is not new: marketing practitioners have used behavioral and demographic data to target large segments of consumers with customized messages for decades. The rise of digital advertising has allowed marketers to be even more fine-grained in their focus — targeting “women ages 18–45” who searched for the term “Soccer World Cup on Google between 2–4 p.m.,” for example.
What is new, however, is the ability to identify and target individuals based on their fundamental character traits and psychological needs, which are known to explain and predict preferences in a broad variety of contexts.
Psychological Targeting in Action
Presently, Facebook does not allow marketers to directly target users based on their psychological traits. By offering the possibility to target ads to users based on their “Likes,” however, Facebook allows would-be influencers to predict those traits, as previous research by two of my co-authors has found, and target their messages accordingly.
For example, if liking “socializing” on Facebook correlates with the personality trait of extroversion, and liking Stargate goes hand in hand with introversion, then targeting users associated with each of these Likes allows us to separately target extroverted and introverted audiences.
To test the effectiveness of these profiles in influencing behavior, we sent out persuasive appeals in the form of Facebook ads that either aligned with or ran counter to users’ predicted psychological profiles. Then, we measured users’ reactions to the ads by counting which ad users clicked on (i.e. clicks) and whether they then purchased the product promoted in the ad (i.e. conversions).
In one experiment, we created ads for an online beauty retailer designed to appeal to either extroverts or introverts and targeted them to users based on their Facebook Likes. Matching the content of these ads to individuals’ psychological characteristics resulted in up to 40 percent more clicks and nearly 50 percent more purchases than mismatched or un-personalized ads.
Extroverts responded more positively when the ad focused on extroverted preferences and interests — in this case, a photo of a group of women in a social situation, dancing, and having fun, accompanied by the message: “Dance like no one’s watching (but they totally are).” Introverts, on the other hand, responded more positively to those ads that focused on introverted preferences — here, a single woman by herself in a quiet environment, enjoying her “me-time,” accompanied by ad copy saying: “Beauty doesn’t have to shout.”
Implications: The Good and Bad
The ability to influence the behavior of large groups of people by tailoring persuasive messages to their psychological needs could be used to help people make better decisions, and lead happier, healthier lives.
It’s in our nature to focus on short-term benefits and neglect long-term negative consequences: ask anyone who has tried to diet how difficult it is to resist the temptation of a chocolate bar and instead eat an apple. Similarly, putting money aside for a rainy day is certainly less enjoyable in the moment than spending it on that new pair of shoes that caught your eye in a store window. But just as psychological targeting can convince people to buy a product, it could also be used to convince people to save more.
When targeting people identified as extroverts, ads could encourage them to imagine spending their savings on an exciting summer holiday with their friends in a vibrant, exhilarating city where they can pursue social activities. Conversely, when targeting introverts, ads could highlight how those savings would allow individuals to make their home a more comfortable refuge from the hectic world outside. In both cases, psychological targeting could help people to see the benefits of saving, and prompt them to save more.
Psychological targeting could be used, however, to exploit weaknesses in people’s character and persuade them to take actions against their best interests. For example: online casinos could target ads at individuals who have psychological traits associated with pathological gambling, like high impulsivity.
Psychological targeting, and questions over its influence, has also been covered extensively in the wake of the 2016 election. While the veracity of these claims remains uncertain, our findings illustrate how psychological mass persuasion could be used to manipulate people to behave in ways that are not in their own or in society’s best interest.
Next Steps: Fueling a Critical Debate
Our findings show that psychological mass persuasion isn’t science fiction. The technology exists today, and it will only become more common and more effective with time.
How do we as consumers and society-at-large want to use this new technology? In what settings do we want to facilitate its application, and when do we want to restrict it? For which purposes should we use it, and for which should we not? Under what conditions should we be allowed to implement it, and what degree of transparency should we require?
What’s needed now is a rigorous public debate about how we as individuals and as a society want to leverage — and regulate — this technology.
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