Imagine yourself sitting with hands folded in your lap, as comfortably as possible in the stiff, padded office chair, its metallic arms gleaming in the soft fluorescent glow, while your interlocutor, a smallish, bespectacled man of about 50 flips slowly through a small pile of papers laid neatly on the smooth wooden table between you. An anonymous-looking, corporate-friendly framed print on the wall behind him depicts a soothing, pastoral landscape as he gently closes the dark green folder containing your resume and reference list. He smiles faintly and says you appear to have a the right qualifications for the job. You inch forward in your seat, expectantly. "And we do have an opening," he says. "Once we run a final cross-check, we'll contact you."
You smile too, but your smile suddenly freezes and your heart sinks into the pit of your stomach because you've heard those words before. A final cross-check means the Personality program. The same program that the last interviewer casually mentioned, almost as an afterthought, before you never heard from him again. And the one before that. And the one before that.
You stand up and shake the interviewer's hand, as much confidence in your face as you can muster. And you walk somewhat stiffly out of the conference room, not hearing his cordial goodbye, not really seeing the receptionist as the nausea begins to churn slowly upwards from your bowels. Because you know won't hear back. You've heard of others who've experienced the same thing. In fact, there's a veritable legion of people who've been denied jobs based on the "cross-check." Some have given up completely, taking lesser jobs such as pushing trashcarts, mowing lawns, cleaning the houses of others, anything that doesn't involve the "cross-check." A few, usually with family connections, have been offered the better jobs in spite of the "cross-check." But you have no "connections." Your father couldn't "make a call." The same thing happened when you applied for that loan--despite a near perfect credit record the bank inexplicably declined to lend you the sum you needed and instead agreed only to a smaller amount at a higher interest rate. And the same thing happened when your application at the University was rejected. No explanation.
In the not-too-distant future employers may determine your fitness for employment, extensions of credit, even admission to certain schools, based on personality traits divined by a computer program measuring, collating, and interpreting your "Likes" on Facebook and other digital markers, preferences and habits you leave behind every day.
Liking Nicki Minaj on Facebook may not seem like a momentous decision — but one day, it could help determine whether you get hired. A new study suggests that based on your Facebook likes, a computer model can predict your personality better than your friends — and in some ways, know more about your life than you do. This also means anyone who can see your Facebook profile could one day learn about your personality, and make determinations about your future job performance, your creditworthiness and more.
Research conducted by Wu Youyou, Michael Kosinski and David Stillwell of Cambridge University's Department of Psychology and the Stanford University Department of Computer Science, has validated a computer model that assesses their subjects' personalities based on their "generic digital footprint" (in this case, Facebook "likes"). The research employed a "five-factor model", a standardized set of personality traits which might be of interest to employers, among others. The traits include: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism (sometimes named by its polar opposite, Emotional Stability), and Openness to Experience, all to determine whether a computer could do a better job at assessing personality traits better than human beings. From the abstract of their paper, boldly titled "Computer-Based Personality Judgments Are More Accurate Than Those Made By Humans":
Judging others' personalities is an essential skill in successful social living, as personality is a key driver behind people’s interactions, behaviors, and emotions. Although accurate personality judgments stem from social-cognitive skills, developments in machine learning show that computer models can also make valid judgments. This study compares the accuracy of human and computer-based personality judgments, using a sample of 86,220 volunteers who completed a 100-item personality questionnaire. We show that (i) computer predictions based on a generic digital footprint (Facebook Likes) are more accurate (r=0.56) than those made by the participants Facebook friends using a personality questionnaire (r=0.49); (ii) computer models show higher interjudge agreement; and (iii) computer personality judgments have higher external validity when predicting life outcomes such as substance use, political attitudes, and physical health; for some outcomes, they even outperform the self-rated personality scores. Computers outpacing humans in personality judgment presents significant opportunities and challenges in the areas of psychological assessment, marketing, and privacy.
Of course, Facebook and other social media sites already practice a form of digital "predictive analytics," as the science is coming to be known, when they target advertisers based on your "likes" and interests as fed into their secretive, data-thirsty maw. And the researchers note that their findings may have an immediate practical impact as product sellers, dating services and other commercial ventures that rely on personality profiling to serve their customers may be the first to widely utilize such programs based on digital data trolled from the internet. Others
have written about "people analytics" in glowing terms as potentially "leveling the playing field" and promoting a more meritocratic hiring process. But like so many things digital, there is a dark side to all of this:
It has “the potential to completely change how we see the job market,” [Dr. Michael Kosinski, one of the paper's authors] said in an interview. Each person could get a computer-generated personality profile, and then prospective employers could search through the profiles for people whose personalities and skills matched their needs. Instead of posting a job and interviewing applicants, “you basically reach out to two or three people that match your profile.”
On a more prosaic level, this can be described as "taking the uncertainty out of hiring." The problem is that once these psychological assessments are collected, digitally, they never go away:
And Danielle Citron, a law professor who has studied privacy, worries that data on people’s personalities could be stored and used in contexts they never expected. “What concerns me,” she said in an interview, “is the potential for keeping people’s assessments and scores in ways that have a much more lasting effect, can be merged, and then analyzed and propagated in ways that aren’t accountable.”
Personality assessments don’t just reveal positive attributes, she noted — “there’s also people whose personalities may have some negative implications, like they’re very absent-minded or they have short attention spans.” And if computerized personality screening and data collection become widespread, such people could lose out on jobs, be denied bank loans or even be flagged for extra security at airports.
If there is one thing that is certain in this world it is that corporations will make use of any technology which appears to have the benefit of saving them money. When these technologies reach their maturity (and the day isn't far off) we can expect they will be used in lieu of individual character and personality assessments now performed by human beings, particularly Human Resource Professionals. The difference will be that there will be no way for an individual to "hide" or "de-emphasize' some aspect of his personality (or past) that he might, with good reason, wish to. For better or for worse the Internet is the center of many of our personal, social and political lives. As these technologies develop, much more than your work-friendly traits such as "agreeability," and "conscientiousness" are likely to be assessed. WalMart's HR department may not like the fact that you "Liked" a Petition against fracking, because it shows you're a potential troublemaker. Target may not like the fact that you "like" a pro-life website, since it demonstrates "inflexibility." Companies may not appreciate the fact that you visit websites for childcare options, that you're divorced, that some algorithm has determined that the fact that you peruse dating sites makes you "unstable" or "neurotic." Or perhaps the simple fact that you "like" a post by someone else with certain identifiable "traits" will automatically be deemed to associate you with that person's beliefs. And, as noted by Scott R. Peppet, a law professor who studies privacy issues, "opting out" would not be a realistic option:
Even if revealing your information to an employer is technically voluntary, he said in an interview, if enough people do it, those who don’t may be at a disadvantage. “Let’s say employers routinely started asking for your Facebook information because they wanted to be able to look at your Likes and assess your personality, and you’re the one person in the group who says no,” he said. At a certain point, “the fact that you won’t reveal it is itself revealing about you, and people start to draw inferences based on that refusal.”
Peppet notes that analytics based on Facebook "Likes" are only the tip of the iceberg, as governments, marketers, and web and telecommunication services have been gathering data on everything we do on the web for years--the challenge is simply how to put it all together into a profile. The Cambridge and Stanford research indicates that such efforts are not only plausible, but provides hard data to support their effectiveness as well:
“There’s probably lots of inputs that we’re going to show over the next few years correlate or predict or assess personality,” he explained, from your Fitbit stats to your iTunes downloads. “In a world where lots of things reveal lots of things about you, it’s not so clear if you’re going to know which one you should or shouldn’t do to protect your privacy.”
Brave new world, indeed.