For many people around the globe, smartphones are an integral and indispensable part of their daily lives. Rarely more than an arm’s length away, these sensor-rich devices are easily used to collect rich and extensive records of their users’ behaviors which some argue poses serious threats to individual privacy.
But what can smartphone data tell us about the user’s personality?
Computational social scientists and psychologists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet in Munich (LMU) utilize smartphone data in order to learn more about personality traits and social behavior.
According to Science Direct, in a study that appears in the journal PNAS, a team of researchers led by LMU psychologist Markus Bühner set out to determine whether conventional data passively collected by smartphones (such as times or frequencies of use) provide insights into users’ personalities. The answer was clear cut.
“Yes, automated analysis of these data does allow us to draw conclusions about the personalities of users, at least for most of the major dimensions of personality,” says Clemens Stachl, who used to work with Bühner
The LMU team recruited 624 volunteers for their PhoneStudy project. The participants agreed to fill out an extensive questionnaire describing their personality traits, and to install an app that had been developed specially for the study on their phones for 30 days. The app was designed to collect coded information relating to the behavior of the user.
According to their press release, “The researchers were primarily interested in data pertaining to communication patterns, social behavior and mobility, together with users’ choice and consumption of music, the selection of apps used, and the temporal distribution of their phone usage over the course of the day. All the data on personality and smartphone use were then analyzed with the aid of machine-learning algorithms, which were trained to recognize and extract patterns from the behavioral data, and relate these patterns to the information obtained from the personality surveys.
Focus was given to the five most significant personality dimensions (the Big Five) identified by psychologists, which enable them to characterize personality differences between individuals in a comprehensive way:
- Openness: willingness to adopt new ideas, experiences and values
- Conscientiousness: dependability, punctuality, ambitiousness and discipline
- Extraversion: sociability, assertiveness, adventurousness, dynamism and friendliness
- Agreeableness: willingness to trust others, good natured, outgoing, obliging, helpful
- Neuroticism (Emotional stability): self-confidence, equanimity, positivity, self-control
The automated analysis revealed that the algorithm was indeed able to successfully derive most of these personality traits from combinations of the multifarious elements of their smartphone usage.
Moreover, the results provide hints as to which types of digital behavior are most informative for specific self-assessments of personality. For example, data pertaining to communication patterns and social behavior (as reflected by smartphone use) correlated strongly with levels of self-reported extraversion, while information relating to patterns of day and night-time activity was significantly predictive of self-reported degrees of conscientiousness.
The results of the study are of great value to researchers, as studies have so far been almost exclusively based on self-assessments. The conventional method has proven to be sufficiently reliable in predicting levels of professional success, for instance.
“Nevertheless, we still know very little about how people actually behave in their everyday lives — apart from what they choose to tell us on our questionnaires,” says Markus Bühner. “
Thanks to their broad distribution, their intensive use and their very high level of performance, smartphones are an ideal tool with which to probe the relationships between self-reported and real patterns of behavior.”