University collaboration finds digital personalities match offline traits


Elisabeth Dillon

A joint study between the UT and Washington University psychology departments found that traits in real life tend to match digital personalities on social media.

Hannah Jane DeCiutiis

A psychological connection exists between the use of Facebook profiles and the physical behavior of Facebook users, according to a study by a University psychology professor.

Psychology professor Samuel Gosling and partner Sam Gaddis were both involved in a collaborative study between the UT Department of Psychology and the Department of Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. The study found that users who are more heavily involved in their social circles offline are more likely to have an active virtual social life.

The study, published in September 2011, has reappeared in online discussion this month. In “Manifestations of Personality in Online Social Networks: Self-Reported Facebook-Related Behaviors and Observable Profile Information,” researchers recorded data submitted by the subjects themselves. The data shows how often users post content to social media websites as well as information they keep publicly available on their profiles. This information was referenced with individual scores based on the five-factor model of personality which measures the traits of openness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism and conscientiousness.

“People are increasingly doing studies on these forms of social media,” Gosling said. “Some people have speculated that these portals serve as compensation for people’s personalities and are not how they express themselves in real life. It’s hard to know, about half the people think you don’t get a good impression and about half think you do. I wouldn’t say I was surprised, necessarily, given the results of other studies I’ve done.”

The five traits measured in each subject proved to indicate specific types of behavior on Facebook, according to the study. Study participants who placed higher in extraversion were more likely to constantly update content and comment on their friends’ posts. Although this was the strongest pattern exhibited in the study, social work junior Alexander McArthur said he feels he is an exception to the rule.

“I’m kind of an opposite, because I’m more introverted in real life than I am online,” McArthur said. “It’s hard to start a conversation with someone face-to-face, but when you’re online it’s much easier.”

While the neuroticism trait did not have a significant effect on online behavior, characteristics such as agreeableness and openness indicated higher levels of friends and information available on profiles, while low agreeableness levels demonstrated less page views and information available.

“I keep my education and workplace listed and all that,” McArthur said. “I usually fill out everything except the phone number, and I have an infinite number of ‘likes.’”

Patterns of Facebook usage and activity also gave researchers insight to real life habits that students often face, according to the study. Participants expressing low levels of conscientiousness were likely to spend more time viewing pages on Facebook, a practice researchers said was consistent with those who have a tendency to procrastinate.

“I usually have Facebook open while I’m doing other things like homework,” said biology freshman Taylor Bruner. “I check Facebook probably every hour.”

Users’ observations of their peers’ pages was equally as informative of online personality accuracy, according to the study.

“I definitely think people post stuff that goes with their real personality,” Bruner said. “I’ll post something about Broadway which fits me perfectly, while my friends who are sports fans are always posting about the game.”

Printed on Wednesday, January 18th, 2012 as: Study finds online, offline traits match