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Massive Facebook study reveals what your status updates say about you

The research found that participants with the most emotional stability refer to sports much more in their updates.

Image: facebook image via Shutterstock

A GROUP OF researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have analysed Facebook status updates of 75,000 volunteers and found an entirely different way to analyse human personality.

The volunteers completed a common personality questionnaire through a Facebook application and made their status updates available so that researchers could find linguistic patterns in their posts.

Drawing from more than 700 million words, phrases, and topics, the researchers built computer models that predicted the individuals’ age, gender, and their responses on the personality questionnaires with surprising accuracy. The full study was published yesterday in online journal PLOS One.

The “open-vocabulary approach” of analysing all words was shown to be equally predictive (and in some cases more-so) than traditional methods used by psychologists, such as self-reported surveys and questionnaires, that use a predetermined set of words to analyse.

Basically, it’s big data meets psychology.

The Penn researchers also created word clouds that “provide an unprecedented window into the psychological world of people with a given trait,” graduate student Johannes Eichstaedt, who worked on the project, said in a press release. “Many things seem obvious after the fact and each item makes sense, but would you have thought of them all, or even most of them?”

Here are some personality traits (key at bottom):

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The word clouds allowed the researchers to generate new insights into relationships between traits and language used.

For example, participants with the most emotional stability refer to sports much more.

Researcher Lyle Ungar said this suggests “we should explore the possibility that neurotic individuals would become more emotionally stable if they played more sports.”

In this way the results provide new ways of researching connections between traits, behaviors, and the effectiveness of psychological interventions.

Here’s the breakdown by age:

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Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center, explained why the new approach trumps previous methods: “When I ask myself, ‘What’s it like to be an extrovert?’ ‘What’s it like to be a teenage girl?’ ‘What’s it like to be schizophrenic or neurotic?’ or ‘What’s it like to be 70 years old?’ these word clouds come much closer to the heart of the matter than do all the questionnaires in existence.”

Here is gender:

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The biggest boon of the study may be that instead of asking millions of people to fill out surveys, future studies could involve volunteers submitting their Facebook or Twitter feeds for anonymised study.

“Researchers have studied these personality traits for many decades theoretically,” Eichstaedt said, “but now they have a simple window into how they shape modern lives in the age of Facebook.”

The study is part of the World Well-Being Project, which has found several ways to “analyse the big data available through online social media in light of psychological theory.”

- Michael Kelley with additional reporting by Michelle Hennessy.

Related: Men swear more on Facebook, women talk about love (Infographic)>

Read: How to become (almost) invisible on Facebook>

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