NEW YORK/CAMBRIDGE: Psychological traits identified from a single “like” on Facebook can be used to create targeted ads that boost both clicks and sales, a new academic study has found.

Researchers at Cambridge University and Columbia Business School in New York explored the effects of “mass psychological persuasion”, revealing how even the smallest digital footprint can be used to influence the behaviour of consumers.

Led by psychologist Sandra Matz, the team assessed more than 3.5m people, mostly women aged 18 to 40 in the UK, as to whether they were likely to be introverted or extroverted, based on a single Facebook “like” for each person.

As they reported in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ads were then created for an unnamed, UK-based beauty retailer, resulting in more than 10,000 clicks and 390 purchases.

Two other experiments involved targeted ads for a crossword app and a shooting game, leading the academics to conclude that matching ads to people’s personalities boosted clicks and sales by up to 40% and 50% respectively compared with untargeted ads.

The researchers, who did not benefit financially from these campaigns, said the findings could help policymakers to target health messages and other appeals to the benefit of society, although they also warned of certain risks, such as unscrupulous companies exploiting human vulnerabilities.

“The capacity to implement psychological mass persuasion in the real world carries both opportunities and ethical challenges. On the one hand, psychological persuasion could be used to help individuals make better decisions and alleviate many of today’s societal ills,” the research authors said.

“On the other hand, psychological persuasion might be used to exploit ‘weaknesses’ in a person’s character. It could, for instance, be applied to target online casino advertisements at individuals who have psychological traits associated with pathological gambling.”

Sourced from Cambridge University, Columbia Business School; additional content by WARC staff