Why Would a Political Advertising Campaign Be Interested in Your Big Five Personality Traits?

Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on March 26, 2018

It's hard to miss the developing story around Facebook and data mining firm Cambridge Analytica, who are at the center of a dispute over the harvesting of personal data - specifically, whether it was used to sway the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

While Cambridge Analytica has denied any wrongdoing, the company has been accused of misusing data to identify the personalities of U.S. voters, a "secret sauce" it then used to influence them through highly personalized ads and campaign material.

At the core of the Cambridge Analytica's work is a personality assessment called the "Big Five." Researchers had users take a personality test then download an app, which scraped data from their Facebook profiles and those of their friends. Correlating the quiz results with the profile data, the firm were able to build software which could personality profile millions of Facebook users based on their "likes." It's the big data equivalent of having everyone in the country take a personality test.

The question is why did Cambridge Analytica bother? Were they really so confident that a person's Big Five personality could be manipulated to produce differences in ballot box behavior? Or has the role of personality in voting tendencies all been oversold?

What is the Big Five?

Essentially, the "Big Five" is another personality assessment to geek about. It has a bit more backing in the social science community than the 16-type personality test, largely because it was discovered through factor analysis, a statistical procedure that analyzes which personality traits tend to co-occur in people's descriptions of themselves and others. It measures personality across five broad factors:

  • Openness to Experience: How insightful and imaginative you are; whether you exhibit intellectual curiosity as opposed to cautiousness.
  • Conscientiousness: How organized and thorough you are; whether you exhibit self control as opposed to carelessness.
  • Extraversion: How talkative and assertive you are; whether you have an energetic approach to social activity as opposed to shyness.
  • Agreeableness: How kind and sympathetic you are; whether you are cooperative and considerate as opposed to individualistic.
  • Neuroticism: Sometimes reversed and called emotional stability; whether you experience anxiety, moodiness and negativity as opposed to calmness, even-temperedness and positivity.

These five traits are often referred to using the acronym OCEAN, to help you remember them.

Using the Big Five, we can make a relatively accurate assessment of the kind of person in front of us. This includes their needs, fears and perceptions, and how they are likely to behave. The Big Five has become a standard technique in psychology, underpinning research on subjects that range from happiness to longevity - and of course, political behavior.

What has the Big Five got to do with politics?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

For years, researchers have understood that our personality traits influence our political leanings. Studies have thrown up some fairly consistent relationships:

Those with a high degree of conscientiousness lean right on both economic and social policy issues. These individuals favor hard work and organization, adhere to social rules and value accomplishments that are socially proscribed, all of which mesh with conservative values.  

Those with a high degree of openness to experience lean left/liberal on both economic and social policy issues. That's probably because they are more tolerant of novelty and are more willing to try the type of radical and unorthodox interventions that are generally associated with the left.

Having agreeableness as your dominant trait makes you a mixed bag - liberal economically, because you're altruistic and want to help the disadvantaged, and conservative socially, since you value traditional family and communal relationships. These individuals typically vote for centrist parties who strike an acceptable balance between the two competing ideologies.  

Neuroticism increases your chances of having left-wing attitudes. Neurotic individuals are unhappy with the here-and-now, more anxious about their economic future, and more desirous of governmental intervention - all of which increases the chance of leaning left. High neuroticism combined with low extraversion are the key personality traits of the protest voter.

Of all the Big Five traits, extraversion is the least clearly associated with political preferences. There's a suggestion that extroverted individuals may lean slight towards the right since Extroverts usually exhibit more of the tough-mindedness that is consistent with right-wing ideology. But this isn't consistently represented in the data.

Interesting, but what's it got to do with voter manipulation?

For political candidates, knowing someone's personality and voting habits is only half the battle. Campaigners must then exploit those preferences to influence the outcome at the ballet box. They do this by engaging in two key strategies: encouraging attitude persistence, meaning they want voters to keep an attitude they already hold, or attempting attitude change, meaning they'll try to get someone to vote differently to how they've voted before.

The algorithm created by Cambridge Analytica focused on the "change" strategy. It identified "persuadable" or "not yet convinced" voters - so-called swing voters - and crafted highly personalized, personality-backed messages to flip that voter toward (or away from) a candidate.

This represents a step-change from the campaign strategies that came before. Previously, campaigners treated swing voters as if they were a single personality, meaning everyone received the same message to persuade them to get off the fence. For example, a candidate might have gone all-out with an "anti big-government" message or "more choice in education." It's an effective strategy when it hits the right audience but it's scattergun - not everyone will like what you're saying.

When you know everyone's personality, it's personal. You can create a bespoke message for every single voter.

How does that work? At the time, the now-suspended Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix used the mainstay issue of gun control as an example. For neurotic voters who worry about crime, a pitch might describe keeping guns for protection against the threat of burglary. For a closed and agreeable audience - people who care about tradition, habits and family - it would push the importance of making sure grandparents could pass down shooting lessons to their family.

To give another example, people high in neuroticism and worried about the future were shown images of immigrants swamping the country to persuade them to vote "leave" during Britain's Brexit campaign.

Does personality-based targeting work?

That's the million dollar question. We know that Donald Trump is president and that Britain voted to leave the EU, but we don't know who voted which way and whether they saw personalized ads that spoke to their inner demons. We honestly have no idea whether a cleverly micro-targeted message, based on someone's Big Five motivations, would have any effect on voting preferences at all.

But there's plenty of meat on this bone. As far back as 2012, researchers from the University of Toronto were running experiments to find out if marketing ads aligned to someone's Big Five profile got a better response than generic ads. For example, Extraverts were given an ad with the tagline: "With XPhone, you'll always be where the excitement is." Neurotics got the same image but with different copy: "Stay safe and secure with the XPhone." You won't be surprised to learn that the effectiveness of the ad increased dramatically when it matched with someone's personal motivations for buying.

The same principle applies in politics. Politicians have always known what buttons to press to appeal to certain personality groups. That's why campaigns use emotionally charged words like "duty" (targets conscientiousness), "choice," "change" and "better future" (targets openness to experience), "community" and "family values" (targets agreeableness), and "security" and "stability" (targets neuroticism) to attract certain groups of voters.

All that's really changed is the level of precision targeting, right down to the individual voter. That, and the fact that you can no longer hide your personality from the all-seeing eye of big data. How you feel about that, might just depend on how neurotic and open you are on your Big Five personality score.

Jayne Thompson

Jayne is a B2B tech copywriter and the editorial director here at Truity. When she’s not writing to a deadline, she’s geeking out about personality psychology and conspiracy theories. Jayne is a true ambivert, barely an INTJ, and an Enneagram One. She lives with her husband and daughters in the UK. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.

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About the Clinical Reviewer

Steven Melendy, PsyD., is a Clinical Psychologist who received his doctorate from The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He specializes in using evidence-based approaches in his work with individuals and groups. Steve has worked with diverse populations and in variety of a settings, from community clinics to SF General Hospital. He believes strongly in the importance of self-care, good friendships, and humor whenever possible.


Jara (not verified) says...

I used to be the prototypical protest voter who helped campaign for my "causes" (plus very conscientous about serving in every election as a poll worker "to keep the election process safe and secure"), but Jesus changed me. Now I look at these current protesters and laugh. I haven't voted since 2013 (and I deactivated my Facebook page more than a year ago)! Total blasphemy to my old self. I've learned that prayer to my Father in heaven in Jesus' name is way more effective in getting the results that I want on earth (when they align with God's will).

JESUS: “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’  These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs.  Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.  You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father.  Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!"

(Matthew 6:31‭-‬34; John 14:12‭-‬14 NLT)

Apostle Paul:

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

(Philippians 4:6‭-‬9 NLT)

If it seems we are crazy, it is to bring glory to God. And if we are in our right minds, it is for your benefit. Either way, Christ’s love controls us. Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life.  He died for everyone so that those who receive His new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.

So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know Him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to Himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to Him.

(2 Corinthians 5:13‭-‬18 NLT)

Rather, I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down. For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law—I stopped trying to meet all its requirements—so that I might live for God. My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.

(Galatians 2:18‭-‬21 NLT)

ashaw9813 says...

Hmmmm. Not sure that I (as an ISTJ) agree totally. Firstly I do not see that "conscientiousness" and "openness to experience" are mutually exclusive - they are certainly not in my case, they are two of my most pronounced characteristics.

Regarding "conscientiousness" I have always turned up and done my job to the  very best of my abilities, and often when I have been ill and had to be sent home. The most outrageous example of that occurred in 2008 when I had a heart attack and still went to the office for 2 days with severe pains in my chest as if nothing had happened, and wouldn't have gone to the hospital at all if my wife hadn't insisted. 

As regards "openness to experience", I worked in IT for 28 years - in 7 different countries! Anyone who has worked in IT will tell you that technology is always moving forward and you have to keep pace with the changes. And when job prospects in my own country (the UK) looked grim, there was the choice of staying put and finding yourself unemployed long-term with skills that were out-of-date (I know several people who found themselves exactly in that situation), or going elsewhere.

And the quality of management and organisation in countries like Germany and the Netherlands seemed far better  and far more results-oriented than that I had experienced at home (and remember - as an ISTJ I like organisation and appreciate quality, and results matter!). And they were realistic enough to acknowledge that if they needed new skills to deal with the new technology, you should be able to get them. I can these days speak four languages (all learned methodically!) and after having my heart attack I have built a sort of career providing translation services.  

As for neuroticism, I don't accept that either. Unemployment was standing at 20% locally where I was living before I left the UK, and job prospects were few and far between. There was nothing neurotic about that assessment, it was a realistic appraisal of the situation. Any move that I had to make had to be based upon the economic realities of the situation and how I could move my career forward in a positive fashion. When you start letting your feelings get in the way of the decision-making process, you are asking for trouble, frankly. 

Final comment - I don't trust politicians generally. We seem to be living in an era where simplistic, polemical solutions (from both sides of the divide!) are being offered that will do nothing to resolve the often difficult situations in which we find ourselves. Stating that something is bad or wrong does not make the alternative good or correct - in many respects it is often a choice between atrocious and abysmal. Unfortunately. 

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