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How We Give Online Advertisers the Tools to Manipulate Us

New research shows the effectiveness of aligning ads with a potential customer’s easily identified personality traits.

The economic model of companies like Facebook and Google is clear enough: Collect data on their users, then sell it to advertisers who use it to target likely customers. The process sounds relatively benign, albeit in a Big Brotherish kind of way.

But what if advertisers, from skin-care manufacturers to political campaigns, could easily determine our dominant personality traits, and use that knowledge to manipulate us into buying their products, or supporting their candidate?

New research warns that they can do just that, and surprisingly easily. It demonstrates that, via social media, we unwittingly reveal the dispositions that drive our behavior—and this information can be used to target us with particularly persuasive ads.

"The application of psychological targeting makes it possible to influence the behavior of large groups of people by tailoring persuasive appeals to the psychological needs of the target audiences," writes a research team led by psychologist Sandra Matz of Columbia University.

"Current approaches are ill-equipped to address (this) potential abuse," Matz, one of Pacific Standard's "Thirty Top Thinkers Under 30" for 2016, reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers describe three experiments, the first of which directed targeted ad campaigns to more than three million Facebook users.

First, they collected data from a widely used personality quiz, focusing on two traits: "Openness to experience," a.k.a. the willingness to try new things, and introversion vs. extroversion. They compared scores on that quiz to a participant's Facebook "likes," and correlated which preferences correspond to which psychological predispositions.

For example, people who indicated that they liked parties and "making people laugh" scored high on extroversion, while those who liked sanctuary and Stargate SG-1 scored high on introversion.

Using such "likes" as a guide, the researchers categorized Facebook members, and targeted them with tailored ads. For instance, they used two sets of ads for a beauty products company: one for introverts (tag lines included "Beauty doesn't have to shout" and "Beauty isn't always about being on show") and one for extroverts ("Love the spotlight and feel the moment").

The campaign reached 3.1 million users, attracted 10,346 clicks (which directed them to the company's website), and resulted in 390 purchases. Averaged across the campaigns, those who saw ads that were congruent with their personality types "were 1.54 times more likely to purchase from the online store" than those who saw ads that didn't align with their psychological make-up.

This finding—confirmed in two follow-up studies—presents "a conservative estimate of the potential effectiveness of psychological mass persuasion," the researchers argue. After all, they based their assessment of personality types on a single measure rather than taking into account users' large digital footprints.

There could be advantages to this sort of marketing. The researchers note that people who are disposed to risky behavior could receive "psychologically tailored health communication."

However, the dangers would appear to outweigh the benefits. The researchers note that this approach could easily "target online casino advertisements at individuals who have psychological traits associated with pathological gambling."

And if you're, say, a Russian agent attempting to stir up animosity among Americans, this kind of analysis could give you a better idea of what makes any individual vulnerable to manipulation.

Matz and her colleagues conclude by noting that no legal measures "currently in place or in discussion address the techniques described in this paper." Indeed, it's hard to imagine ones that would be too effective. Once you've revealed who you are—which is what social media is all about—you open yourself up to being exploited.

Big brother is indeed watching you—and using his observations to slyly manipulate you into buying more stuff.