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.