A team of university academics claim that companies can track people online with just one click.
Dr Sandra Matz, a former PhD student at Cambridge now based at Columbia University, worked with Dr David Stillwell from the Cambridge University Psychometrics Centre to explore psychological targeting.
Almost every step you take online is recorded: the websites you visit, the purchases you make, the songs you listen to, the messages you post or read on social sites
They've just published a study demonstrating that companies need just need one Facebook like to target potential customers and access user data effectively.
"Whether you like it or not, almost every step you take online is recorded: the websites you visit, the purchases you make, the songs you listen to, the messages you post or read on social sites, and the pages you follow on Facebook," the researchers claimed.
"These digital footprints provide a treasure trove of data that can reveal not only what you like and how you see the world, but also who you are as a person.
Organisations are putting together persuasive measures based on core psychological profiles, such as if someone is extroverted or introverted
Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the study found that companies are using digital footprints to track and influence the behaviour of internet users.
Organisations are putting together persuasive measures based on core psychological profiles, such as if someone is extroverted or introverted. From this, they can increase click rates and sales.
"The basic principle behind this form of personalised persuasion is not new: marketing practitioners have long used behavioural and demographic data to target consumers with customised messages," they believe.
"What is new, however, is the ability to identify and target audiences based on psychological traits that reflect people's preferences and needs at a much deeper and instinctual level. "
Psychological targeting, however, can focus on a person's fundamental character traits and psychological needs
The researchers said businesses are shifting away from demographic-based marketing approaches. "Prior targeting might have focused on demographic or behavioural attributes such as ‘women ages 18-45' who searched for the term ‘Soccer World Cup on Google between 2-4pm'.
"Psychological targeting, however, can focus on a person's fundamental character traits and psychological needs, which are known to explain and predict preferences in a broad variety of contexts."
In three studies, the academics used Facebook to target over 3.5 million users and gain an understanding of their psychological traits.
"While previous research has shown that one can accurately predict people's psychological traits after getting their permission to access to their Facebook profiles, we leveraged inherent features of the Facebook advertising platform to target our ads at consumer segments of different psychological profiles," they said.
Psychological targeting could be used to exploit weaknesses in people's character and persuade them to take action against their best interest
"For example, if liking ‘socialising' on Facebook correlates with the personality trait of extroversion, and liking ‘Stargate' goes hand in hand with introversion, then targeting users associated with each of these Likes allows us to separately target extroverted and introverted audiences.
There are both good and bad implications of this tracking approach, the academics said.
"The ability to influence the behaviour of large groups of people by tailoring persuasive messages to their psychological needs could be used to help people make better decisions, and lead healthier and happier lives.
"On the other hand, psychological targeting could be used to exploit weaknesses in people's character and persuade them to take action against their best interest.
"For example, online casinos could target ads at individuals who have psychological traits associated with pathological gambling. In fact, psychological targeting has been covered extensively in the context of its ability to influence the outcome of elections.
"While the veracity of these claims remains uncertain, our findings illustrate how psychological mass persuasion could be used to manipulate people to behave in ways that are neither in their best interest nor in the best interest of society."
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