At a time when the talk of the town is about Facebook ‘security breach’, let us understand the situation in a psychological viewpoint.
Psychiatrists traditionally use clinical interviews and psychological tests to assess the personality of individuals who seek professional help. To make this assessment, they may ask the client or reliable informants about her likes, dislikes, preferences, hobbies, interests, moral values, political or religious beliefs, sleep habits, relationships etc.
Based on this data, if obtained in a reliable and adequate manner, an experienced mental health professional will be able to profile the temperament and character of the client with a fairly high degree of accuracy.
Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists may also use structured questionnaires to objectively quantify personality traits. For example, the score obtained on some set of questions may reflect how much a person is introvert or extrovert.
Another strategy is a technique called “projective test”. In Rorschach Ink Blot test, the client is shown some ambiguous pictures and is encouraged to give response. By interpreting the nature and manner of the responses, conclusions can be drawn about the personality or sometimes even the unconscious motives.
In Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), a picture depicting a situation is given to the client and she is expected to make up a story based on this. A skilled interpretation of this story reveals the clients' conflicts and aspirations.
Psychologists working in the field of personality traits have identified five basic traits in human beings which determine our behaviour.
These are referred to as the Big Five: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Neuroticism refers to emotional control — a low score on neuroticism means better emotional control whereas a high score means excessive tendency to worry and feelings of loneliness. High score on agreeableness means a person who is kind, warm and empathetic. Conscientious people have high degree of work ethics, thoroughness and orderliness. Higher chance of experimenting with life and novelty seeking behaviour are seen in those with higher score on openness. Those with high score on extraversion tend to seek out friendship, socialisation and adventures.
The pattern of social media use was found to have a correlation with the score on these Big Five traits. Those with high score on conscientiousness tend to use social media more for information and communication purpose whereas those high on openness prefer to use them for relationships, recreations or self-promoting.
Those with prominent neuroticism traits in their personality may seek out relationships for avoiding loneliness and may become dependent on such relationships. Because of the lack of objectivity and crucial attitude in thinking, they may accept suggestions without proof or evidence. This phenomenon termed “suggestibility” may make them gullible to propaganda of various nature, including those with commercial interests. Those high on neuroticism, openness and agreeableness may be vulnerable and good targets for advertising and marketing agencies.
Imagine a situation where the advertiser knows the personality traits of his potential clients. That gives a lot of opportunities for selective targeting of his clients. Call centres can direct the calls more selectively. This targeting happens without the knowledge of the client. The advantage for the advertiser turns out to be a disadvantage for the client. His privacy is violated even without his knowledge.
Is it possible to profile the client characteristics from his Internet and social media behaviour?
Answer is, probably yes.
It has now come out that Cambridge researcher David Stillwell and his friends Michel Kosinski and Thore Graepel designed an app way back in 2013 which can predict your behaviour looking at Facebook likes. And they relied on the Big Five traits, too!
The frequency of visits to websites, blogs, likes, comments and posts could possibly help identify patterns. Social media almost functions like a projective test of one’s inner needs and wishes. From the pattern of responses, it might be possible to profile the personality traits almost like a psychologist making reasonable assumptions from a Rorschach Test or TAT and make predictions about the chance of his behaviour (buying a product, preferred sexual activity , whom he is likely to vote etc.,) with a fair degree of accuracy.
What could be the possible implications if the service providers themselves or another agency who has an access to the individual’s internet behaviour uses this data with ulterior motives?
With machines capable of managing terabytes of data and self-learning algorithms, it can reasonably be predicted that the algorithms for this prediction can improve tremendously over time and can reach a proportion of mind reading. Would that be the end of a person’s ultimate freedom — the freedom to chose his thinking and behaviour? Chances are — yes.
(The writer is Professor and Head of the Department of Psychiatry, Government TD Medical College, Alappuzha, and president of Kerala Chapter of Indian Psychiatric Society)