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How psychographics explain who you are and help to win an election near you

By Archie Heaton

Ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the murky world of psychographics has come under increasingly intense scrutiny. However, despite this high level of interest, and ink, publicly available explanations of the technique remains scarce. Consequently, a true understanding of what it is remains rare among the public, policy makers and – as my recent trip to one of the holding company’s headquarters in NYC showed – even in the upper echelons of the industry! But, while the impact of psychographics is complex, the basic technique is not. In fact, it’s based on relatively rudimentary psychology.

For context, it is worth noting that psychology, the study of human behaviour, and marketing, the art of influencing this behaviour, are intrinsically linked. Marketers have long been enamoured with the academics of personality, especially post-Freud where we now take it for granted that our subconsciousness dictates our behaviour to such a large extent. More recently this thinking has been distilled into the dominant OCEAN model of personality, which measures individual character by the extent to which it exhibits five key traits; Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Critically, this system quantifies personality, meaning that knowing a consumer’s five OCEAN scores enables a comprehensive understanding of their unique character.

Thus, if personality is agreed to be a key driver of behaviour, then an individual’s likely behaviour can be extrapolated from the unique cross section of their five scores. For example, it has been proven that people who score highly for conscientiousness, on average, use social media far more frequently than others, while those with high agreeableness exhibit a much higher preference for independent brands.

It is this connection to consumer behaviour that has naturally drawn the attention of the industry, which has helped build upon such work to form an area of study at the intersection of psychology and business; psychographics. Here, rather than using basic demographics to group consumers, their OCEAN scores are used instead. This is far more advanced, grouping people not simply by age or gender, but clustering them in groups mentally inclined to act in a similar way.

Specifically, in the modern era, psychographic marketing is carried out almost exclusively online, with social media offering a pool of data larger than ever before. Every second of every day, data mining firms are collecting vast quantities of personal information about us; such as our publicly declared social media interests, spending patterns and political affiliations. In tandem, the psychometric scores of users who have played gamed versions of personality tests are gathered and analysed to create individual OCEAN personality profiles.

Simple cross-referencing is then all that is needed, revealing the relationships between the varying personality types and this other information. This number crunching then reveals a map, based on the averages of millions of consumers, linking readily available personal information to an individual’s personality type. For example, it was found that people with both an interest in rock music and a habit of tweeting more than three times a day were almost guaranteed to score highly as extraverts.

Once millions of links like this have been determined, all firms such as Cambridge Analytica need to do is reverse the process on a much grander scale – using easily available demographic data to infer the personality types of entire populations. In theory, this allows them to accurately predict the behaviour of millions of people on an individual level.

In fact, by analysing just ten Facebook likes, software developed by Cambridge researchers was able to better predict a person’s personality than a work colleague and it took as little as 300 likes before the program was able to judge someone’s character better than their parent or spouse. Another study was able to successfully predict male sexuality from Facebook likes 88 per cent of the time, a success rate far higher than humans and, disturbingly, regardless of whether the individual themselves had chosen to make this public knowledge.

With a few hundred Facebook likes unlocking such intimate knowledge of a human’s personality, it is telling that the CEO of Cambridge Analytica boasted of having 4000 to 5000 data points on every adult in America. This remarkable database allowed the firm to know the entire US population on an “individual level” and this had profound effects on the discipline of marketing. For example, one study found that the click-through rate of an advert can be increased by up to 670 per cent by using these targeting and segmentation methods, while another managed to achieve 1400 more campaign conversions. An experiment on BT’s website, that morphed the layout of the website to match each user’s personality type, was shown to increase purchase intent 21 per cent and, if implemented across the entire site, would incrementally increase the firm’s revenue by $80 million a year – without a single change to product or price.

And that is the power of psychographics. When combined with vast quantities of online data, it gives marketers the ability to customise communications on an individual level based upon each user’s personality. While the morality of using this approach to sell products and services can be defended, its use by politicians such as Donald Trump to promise different things to different people is far less palatable. It was by releasing hundreds of different highlight reels of each election rally and targeting them with psychogaphics that many commentators believe secured him critical swing votes in key states. For example, his team only exposed those with low openness to his harsh immigration rhetoric, while those with low neuroticism (and thus lower anxiety about immigrants) were shielded from it. This created multiple realities where two totally different voters, and personality types, saw a different Donald Trump Presidential candidate.

And this is the future. We are rapidly moving towards a world where our entire digital lives will be tailored towards our individual personalities. And, if you honestly think that this is going to have no impact on your actions or beliefs well, I can predict, with almost 100 per cent accuracy, that your personality type is one prone to delusion.

Archie Heaton is a brand consultant, available for freelance work. He can be found here on LinkedIn.

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