Personality 2.0: What do user profiles in the social network studiVZ reveal about their owners?

Study of the Section of Personality and Psychological Assessment analyzes "Personality and the social perception in online social networks"


Online social networks such as Facebook or studiVZ, a German network for students, are being used to express and communicate real personality instead of an idealized virtual identity, according to new research from German and US scientists. "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," psychologist Sam Gosling at the University of Texas at Austin says. "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," mentions his colleague Mitja Back from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. "These findings suggest that online social networks are not so much about providing a positive spin for the profile owners," Gosling adds, "but are instead just another medium for engaging in genuine social interactions."

Gosling and Back collected with a team of researchers 236 profiles of college-aged people from the United States (Facebook) and Germany (studiVZ/meinVZ). 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. These findings are consistent with previous research showing that neuroticism is difficult to detect without being in person.

The study presented confirms the important influence personality has on our daily life: "Be it our language or clothing, our behavior or our e-mail address, our office or bedroom, our taste in music or our online profile – all this reflects our personality," says Back. "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." At present, there are about 700 million users of online networks.

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