Facebook reveals who you are, say insurers

Crash test: Admiral thinks it can identify a safe driver from their Facebook page.

A car insurance firm is trying — and failing — to access clients’ Facebook pages to determine their personalities. Is it right to do so? How much do our online profiles really say about us?

How many exclamation marks do your Facebook posts contain? Are your sentences long or short? Do you use a calendar app?

Your answers reveal a lot about you, according to a car insurance firm. Yesterday, Admiral was due to launch firstcarquote, a scheme whereby the company would use an algorithm to scan drivers’ Facebook profiles for indicators of personality. Those who came across as ‘careful’ would receive discounts.

There was a backlash, with some arguing that personality cannot be measured so simply. Then, two hours before launch, Facebook blocked the scheme. The social media giant pointed to its guidelines, which state that its data cannot be used to help decide on an application. Privacy campaigners cheered.

Firstcarquote or no, ‘dataveillance’ is a growing trend. One health insurance firm uses Apple Watches to tracks its clients’ exercise habits, changing its prices accordingly. And a growing number of employers check job applicants’ online profiles before hiring.

Increasingly, however, this is a job for machines. A range of studies are drawing links between character and social media activity. One accurately predicted Facebook users’ Big Five personality traits according to what they had ‘Liked’. Another matched the same five traits with different types of Twitter profile picture.

Meanwhile, American scientists have launched the World Well-Being Project: volunteers take a personality test, then let the team monitor their vocabulary on Facebook. The scientists have found a strong correlation: extroverts use words like ‘party’ and ‘girls’, while introverts talk about ‘anime’ and ‘music’.

So the task of ‘measuring’ personalities is falling to algorithms, which can work far more efficiently than humans. They flip the studies around, looking at factors like word use and number of Likes to determine character traits.

This data is interesting to retailers, but only if it is accurate. Which begs the question: does our online personality truly reflect our offline one?

Out of character

Not really, say some. Social media is selective. We use it to project an ideal version of ourselves to the world, whether by uploading holiday pics to Facebook or posting our professional achievements on Twitter. Personality studies based on these websites will be crude and misleading, as the simplistic Big Five model shows.

Hang on, reply others. For starters, what you choose to upload already says a lot. The thing about social media profiles is that they last for years, and it is very hard to keep up a pretence. Over time, nuggets of your real self will shine through. Retailers may not get a full picture of who you are, but they will have enough to suit their needs.

You Decide

  1. Have you ever done anything on social media that you regret? Why (not)?
  2. Has social media made the world a better place?


  1. Use the University of Cambridge’s tool to determine your personality (see Become An Expert). Is it accurate?
  2. Pair up. On your own, describe your and your partner’s personalities in one paragraph each. Compare notes – do the two of you agree? Then, as a class, come up with a definition of ‘personality’.

Some People Say...

“Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

What do you think?

Q & A

Should I start using fewer exclamation marks on Facebook?
Admiral’s criteria are not necessarily indicative of how other companies might try to measure your personality. So don’t worry too much about those !!!. But bear in mind that what you post may well be judged later in your life. An offensive or distasteful post could cost you a university place or job, or even get you in legal trouble.
Legal trouble?
Indeed. Defamation law varies between countries, but in the UK and the USA, you are legally responsible for what you post online. If you defame someone – ie, damage their reputation by writing false information – they could take you to court. This happens regularly. For example, in the UK in 2013, Lord McAlpine sued an MP’s wife over a tweet that implied that he’s a paedophile. He won.

Word Watch

Another criterion cited by Admiral: when arranging to meet someone in a Facebook post, do you name a specific time and place?
A set of rules given to a computer in order to perform a task.
‘Whether intentional or not, algorithms could perpetuate social biases that are based on race, gender, religion or sexuality,’ said campaign organisation Open Rights Group. See Become An Expert for more.
A portmanteau word combining ‘data’ and ‘surveillance’.
Apple Watches
Devices that measure such things as your pace and heart rate during exercise. The firm, Vitality, offers discounts to clients who do regular exercise – and use the watch to prove it.
Conducted by Stanford and Cambridge Universities in 2015.
Big Five
This model is popular among psychologists as a tool for broadly describing personality. The five traits are extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. This is only one model out of many: American psychologist Gordon Allport used a list of 4,000 traits!
Conducted by the University of Pennsylvania in 2016.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.