Facebook Profiles Capture True Personality, According to New Psychology Research

Dec. 1, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — Online social networks such as Facebook are being used to express and communicate real personality, instead of an idealized virtual identity, according to new research from psychologist Sam Gosling at The University of Texas at Austin.

"I was surprised by the findings because the widely held assumption is that people are using their profiles to promote an enhanced impression of themselves," says Gosling of the more than 700 million people worldwide who have online profiles. "In fact, our findings suggest that online social networking profiles convey rather accurate images of the profile owners, either because people aren't trying to look good or because they are trying and failing to pull it off.

"These findings suggest that online social networks are not so much about providing positive spin for the profile owners," he adds, "but are instead just another medium for engaging in genuine social interactions, much like the telephone."

Gosling and a team of researchers collected 236 profiles of college-aged people from the United States (Facebook) and Germany (StudiVZ, SchuelerVZ). The researchers used questionnaires to assess the profile owners' actual personality characteristics as well as their ideal-personality traits (how they wished to be). The personality traits included: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness.

In the study, observers rated the profiles of people they did not know. These ratings were then compared to the profile owners' actual personality and their ideal-personality. Personality impressions based on online social network profiles were accurate and were not affected by profile owners' self-idealization.

Accuracy was strongest for extraversion—paralleling results of face-to-face encounters—and lowest for neuroticism. Those findings were consistent with previous research showing that neuroticism is difficult to detect without being in person.

"I think that being able to express personality accurately contributes to the popularity of online social networks in two ways," says Gosling. "First, it allows profile owners to let others know who they are and, in doing so, satisfies a basic need to be known by others. Second, it means that profile viewers feel they can trust the information they glean from online social network profiles, building their confidence in the system as a whole."

Gosling recently co-authored a study on how first impressions do matter when it comes to communicating personality through appearance. For his latest personality research, he focuses his attention to personality in relation to online social networks.

Findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Researchers include: Gosling and Sam Gaddis (The University of Texas at Austin), Mitja Back, Juliane Stopfer and Boris Egloff (Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz, Germany), Simine Vazire (Washington University in St. Louis), and Stefan Schmukle (Westfälische Wilhelms-University Münster, Germany).

For more information, contact: Michelle Bryant, College of Liberal Arts, 512 232 4730; Sam Gosling, 512-471-1628.

8 Comments to "Facebook Profiles Capture True Personality, According to New Psychology Research"

1.  Ken Crockett said on Dec. 3, 2009

It appears the professor used virtual research to study a virtual reality and arrived at a virtual conclusion. I'm surprised the professor doesn't know that evaluating a profile in a clinical fashion isn't the same as seeking grounds for establishing a meaningful relationship with the person behind the profile. Perhaps I can help by revealing a secret: You can't know someone until you've had eye contact.

2.  Christina Song said on Dec. 3, 2009

A virtual conclusion? I am surprised that the rhetorical pillars of your conclusion are substantiated through a flawed use of the term "relationship." Not every face-to-face relationship is characterized by meaning, nor are all telephone relationships reflective of that type of deep relationship. If Dr. Gosling had been studying deep, meaningful relationships, maybe your points would make more sense.

Additionally, the profiles were not being evaluated in a "clinical" fashion, so to speak. Raters participating in the study were rating profile content using five basic, well-studied personality traits. The conclusions of the study simply state that self-ratings and ratings by judges agreed.

3.  Craig Schroer said on Dec. 3, 2009

I wonder if there was any data gathered about whether people who appear to have a chip on their shoulder in their online persona actually have one in reality?

4.  Michael Kelton said on Dec. 3, 2009

Very interesting. I totally agree with the findings of the study. The people I know who use Web sites like Facebook don't create "profiles" to exaggerate or "sugar-coat" their qualities as a person. It seems that electronic social networking, from the perspective of the average mature individual, is simply used as an extension of the individual's consciousness as a means for connecting and keeping in touch with friends and family (i.e. exactly what social networking was designed for). These types of sites have proliferated so widely throughout the world because people have a deep need to stay connected with others. The problem with doing that is how busy modern life keeps us, but at the same time, we have almost constant access to the Internet, from work or home in many cases. Online social networking simply makes staying connected more accessible in a modern society.

@ Ken Crockett - I agree that to truly know a person, it requires a lot of time spent exchanging ideas, hopes, dreams, fears, etc. But what makes you say eye contact is a necessity. Are you saying that I would be "unknowable" if I didn't have eyes? LOL, that's just silly.

5.  Denise said on Dec. 4, 2009

Ken, you might not know what kind of chemistry will exist, but I think you can get to know some really fundamental stuff about a person from an online profile and online interaction that will tell you whether there's a connection not based on physicality. Of course, if they've fabricated who they are online, then you know your connection is with the fabrication and not them only once you meet. I think the conclusion the researcher has made is pretty easy to take because it just says that there is a stronger correlation than initially suspected between real personalities and their corresponding online personalities.

6.  William Monahan said on Feb. 28, 2010

To Ken Crockett: what about people who are physically blind, or who have found their soul mates through correspondence?

I agree with Denise about the chemistry thing, moderately, because I think she was referring to what we can see and touch in one another, but I think there is a lot more to what constitutes, or makes for deep and satisfying human relationships than that. I like the saying "Happiness is being married to your best friend."

I think the work of Sam Gosling and others with how people reveal themselves through social networking is timely, and accurate. I wonder, if after these realities become better known over time, if people will start using social networking to portray images of their self, that are not "true," as was thought to be true in the first place.

I have believed for some years that there is something about anonymity that brings the real person to the surface in how people express themselves, as when people are behind the wheel driving.

7.  Renato Galhardi said on May 9, 2010

Interesting article. I'm currently finishing my masters thesis on how Mexican American college students present themselves on Facebook, and have come to similar conclusions pertaining to the accuracy of their perceived and projected presentation.

8.  Brian J. Bartlett said on Dec. 30, 2011

On a related validation of the research, it would be interesting to see if there were changes to the profile and network of online friends after a life changing event. Research that Dr. Jean E. Bartlett (UC Riverside: Anthropology and yes, my mother) found that when such life changing events as a divorce, death of a close relative or child, etc., resulted in a total makeover in terms of friends, relationships, jobs, and religion. That last is how it came to her attention. This would, of course, require tracking one or more cohorts, but thus are the meat of grants.