Anyone who has ever spent time on a dating Web site like Match.com knows that the online profile often doesn’t match the person in real life.
So when University of Texas researchers began studying Facebook friends, they expected that users also would exaggerate accomplishments and offer an enhanced version of themselves. To their surprise, they discovered that Facebook profiles typically gave an accurate and realistic impression of the user’s real-life personality.
The scientists, led by a psychology professor, Sam Gosling, collected 236 profiles of young adults on Facebook as well as a similar social networking site in Germany. The researchers used personality questionnaires and interviewed friends to determine the profile owners’ actual personalities, assessing traits like extroversion, agreeableness, openness, neuroticism and conscientiousness. The survey also measured how they wished to be, assessing their ideal personality traits. Using the same rating system, the researchers also assessed each user’s personality based on the information provided in the online profile.
The researchers expected the Facebook profiles to match an idealized version of the user’s personality. But to their surprise, the online Facebook profile matched the real-world personality test.
Dr. Gosling said the findings suggested that online social networks could provide users with an opportunity for genuine social interactions.
“Is Facebook an opportunity to promote ourselves, a P.R. exercise? Or is it just another medium of social communication, like the telephone?” Dr. Gosling said. “This research suggests the latter. Young adults are using it as a way to communicate and leaving lots of clues about what they’re really like.”
The Facebook pages were particularly well suited for identifying extroverts. The personality assessment based on the online profile was least accurate for identifying traits of neuroticism, common in those who are anxious, uptight or worry a lot. Dr. Gosling said that finding was consistent with other studies showing that neuroticism was difficult to identify without a face-to-face encounter.
“This online social world is an important environment,” Dr. Gosling said. “If you look at the time people spend on it and the hours people devote to it, it’s not just a fad. It’s meeting some important social needs.”
Tara Parker-Pope on Health
December 2, 2009