The psychology of Facebook profiles

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Given the online forum of Facebook to create whatever public persona you’d like, it would seem logical that people might portray an idealized version of themselves—putting up their most attractive photos, editing down their thoughts to the most clever and pithy before posting them in a status update, carefully choosing favorite books and movies to portray a certain sophistication. Not so, say researchers from the University of Texas at Austin. Instead of using Facebook to create rose-tinted portraits of themselves, more often people’s Facebook profiles reflect their authentic personalities, with all of the quirks, funny faces and moodiness they entail.

Psychologist Sam Gosling analyzed the Facebook profiles of 236 college-aged people, who were also asked to fill out personality questionnaires. The study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, included surveys that were designed to assess not only how study participants viewed themselves in reality, but also what their personalities would be like if they had all of their ideal traits. Specifically Gosling and colleagues measured openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion and neuroticism. And when they sized up the survey results against participants’ Facebook profiles, it quickly became clear that, instead of putting out gilded versions of themselves, people’s online profiles were in keeping with what they were actually like in real life.

Not all personality traits transfer equally to the internet, however, Gosling points out. While extroverts are consistent, whether in person or on Facebook, nueroticism is more evident in person than it is online. For the most part, however, Gosling suggests that online profiles—which some 700 million people around the globe currently have—are relatively accurate depictions of personality, either because their owners intend for them to be, or because people are trying, but failing, to present an idealized version of themselves. In what will likely strike a chord with Facebook devotees, he concludes that, instead of presenting a false alternative social world online, social networking sites are simply another medium for sincere social interactions. (In other words, if you’re a jerk in real life, you’ll be one on Facebook too.)

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