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Social Media and its Playground of Ethics, Psychology and Politics – Part 1

Computer science is just one small wheel in the social media clockwork. There’s behavioural science, ethics and politics at play. This four-part essay explores each of the facets’ dark, dystopian faults and uplifting, utopian virtues. Having analysed the complex components, there are clear directions for the future of which all of us, with our colourful temperaments, can go.

“I thought that the mass public, for the first time in history, could easily unlock their personality and could finally understand themselves in a few clicks of a button.”

When explaining one’s opinion on complex issues, It’s better to start with an explanation of how one is psychometrically situated before he or she puts forward their initial positions. Being high in openness and conscientiousness, according to the famous psychometric test, ‘Understand Myself’, the mass harvesting of data achieved by the combination of psychometrics and ‘big data’ from users’ likes, comments and posts on Facebook (Cambridge Analytica) and on Twitter (Cambridge Psychometric Center) was something that greeted me with intense excitement. The fact that there was a way to understand myself from such a small collection of data initiated a snowball effect of emerging opportunity. I thought that the mass public, for the first time in history, could easily unlock their personality and could finally understand themselves in a few clicks of a button.

Life’s problems could be sorted out. An individual wondering why others never listen to them can stop wallowing in self-pity and realise that extroverts are more assertive and thus adopting some characteristics would help them in this area. How often is it that one can describe the reason they did something? How frequently can one articulate the precise reasons they reacted in an overly aggressive manner with a colleague using scientific rationale? Conversely, the other party can substantiate their problem-solving capacity in diffusing the conflict using scientific rationale.

What would be revealed is that we are all psychometrically distributed differently on five separate dimensions – the Five-Factor Model (FFM). Researchers Robert R. McCrae and Oliver P. John (1990) wrote one of the most cited scientific papers in the world with over 5,000 citations. They describe the long-winded, self-improving and iterative methods used to derive the five dimensions of FFM. In short, hundreds of personality questions and statements were put forward. Over time, the questions reduced and reduced until only five different dimensions existed. The researchers write –

‘…it is difficult to understand how cognitive functions can explain real-life outcomes. Yet the five factors have been shown to predict external criteria from divergent thinking abilities (McCrae, 1987) to marital adjustment and divorce (Kelly & Conley, 1987), to coronary disease endpoints (Dembroski, MacDougall, Costa, & Grandits, 1989), to job performance criteria (Barrick & Mount, 1991). These applications of the FFM provide some of the most impressive evidence of its validity.

If we reject the information-processing explanation of why there are five factors, what rationale remains? We believe it is simply an empirical fact, like the fact that there are seven continents on earth or eight American presidents from Virginia. Biologists recognise eight classes of vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and four classes of fishes, one extinct), and the theory of evolution helps to explain the development of these classes. It does not, however, explain why eight classes evolved, rather than four or eleven, and no one considers this a defect in the theory. There are, of course, reasons why human beings differ along each of the five personality dimensions—reasons to be found somewhere in evolution, neurobiology, socialisation, or the existential human condition. But it is probably not meaningful or profitable to ask why there happen to be just five such dimensions.’

The five factors and their subfactors are defined as follows (Understand Myself):

  • Openness to Experience: Openness and Intellect
  • Conscientiousness: Industriousness and Orderliness
  • Extraversion: Enthusiasm and Assertiveness
  • Agreeableness: Compassion and Politeness
  • Neuroticism: Withdrawal and Volatility

People with exceptionally high levels of openness to experience are almost always characterised by others as extremely smart, creative, exploratory, intelligent and visionary. They are extremely interested in learning and are constantly acquiring new abilities and skills. They are extremely curious and exploratory. They are exceptionally interested in abstract thinking, philosophy, and the meaning of belief systems and ideologies. They live for cultural events such as movies, concerts, dance recitals, plays, poetry readings, gallery openings and art shows. They are very likely to enjoy writing (or even to be driven to write). They enjoy complex, abstract ideas and deeply love to confront and solve complex, abstract and multi-dimensional problems.

People high in conscientiousness are dutiful. They slog away until the work is done. They work hard and dislike wasting time. They are unlikely to procrastinate (particularly if they are also below average in neuroticism). If a highly conscientious person promises to do something, he or she will probably do it, even in troubled circumstances, without excuses. They are decisive, neat, organised, future-oriented, reliable and not easily distracted.

People with very high levels of extraversion are very enthusiastic, talkative, assertive in social situations, and gregarious. They are highly energised by social contact and crave it. They find great pleasure in planning parties, telling jokes, making people laugh, and taking part in community activities. They typically have positive memories of the past, high levels of current self-esteem (particularly if they are low in neuroticism), and experience far above average optimism about the future.

People high in agreeableness are nice: compliant, nurturing, kind, naively trusting and conciliatory. However, because of their tendency to avoid conflict, they often dissemble and hide what they think. People low in agreeableness are not so nice: stubborn, dominant, harsh, sceptical, competitive and, in the extreme, even predatory. However, they tend to be straightforward, even blunt, so you know where they stand.

People with very low levels of neuroticism almost never focus on the negative elements, anxieties and uncertainties of the past, present and future. It is very rare for them to face periods of time where they are unhappy, anxious and irritable unless facing a serious, sustained, complex problem. Even under the latter conditions, they cope very well, don’t worry, and recover quickly. They’re very good at keeping their head in a storm, and they almost never make mountains out of molehills.

This model is the most widely used mechanism for denoting personality it relates to Political temperament. Dr Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at New York University (NYU) has written and talked about correlations extensively, particularly in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics. Conservatives are characterised by their relatively low openness and relatively high conscientiousness and Liberals, on the other hand, are characterised by their relatively high openness and relatively low conscientiousness.

For Cambridge Psychometrics Center (and later, using the former’s methods, Cambridge Analytica) to find correlations with statuses, comments and likes on Facebook is just nothing short of mind-blowing. Liking Fight Club showed correlations with relatively higher levels of openness than American Idol; liking Marilyn Manson showed lower agreeableness than Casting Crowns and so on.

For business, one could easily target the most appropriate people by adopting psychometrics: Galleries could target those who ‘like’ Fight Club, Law firms could target those who ‘like’ Marilyn Manson.

This content is one individual's opinion and does not represent the opinion of The Galleon. If you disagree with this article or have any further comment to make please email