On the Internet,” one dog tells another in a classic New Yorker cartoon, “nobody knows you’re a dog.”
The internet is notorious for its digital dens of deception. But on Facebook, what you see tends to be what you get — at least in one study of tailless, two-legged young adults.
College-age users of Facebook in the United States and a similar social networking site in Germany typically present accurate versions of their personalities in online profiles, says psychologist Mitja Back of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. People use online social networking sites to express who they really are rather than idealized versions of themselves, Back and his colleagues conclude in an upcoming Psychological Science.
“Online social networks are so popular and so likely to reveal people’s actual personalities because they allow for social interactions that feel real in many ways,” Back says.
Back’s team administered personality inventories that evaluated 133 U.S. Facebook users and 103 Germans who used a comparable social-networking site. Inventories focused on the extent to which volunteers endorsed ratings of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional instability and openness to new experiences.
The subjects — who ranged in age from 17 to 22 — took the inventory twice, first with instructions to describe their actual personalities and then to portray idealized versions of themselves.
Then, undergraduate research assistants — nine in the United States and 10 in Germany — rated volunteers’ personalities after looking at their online profiles. Those ratings matched volunteers’ actual personality descriptions better than their idealized ones, especially for extraversion and openness.
Facebook is so true to life, Back claims, that encountering a person there for the first time generally results in a more accurate personality appraisal than meeting face to face, going by the results of previous studies.
Adriana Manago, a psychology graduate student at UCLA, calls the new findings “compelling” but incomplete. College students on Facebook and other online social networks often augment what they regard as their best personal qualities, Manago holds. In her view, these characteristics aren’t plumbed by broad personality measures like the ones measured in Back’s study. And students’ actual personality descriptions may have included enhancements of their real characteristics, thus inflating the correlation between observers’ ratings and students’ real personalities, Manago notes.
“Online profiles showcase an enhanced reflection of who the user really is,” Manago proposes. In a 2008 study, she and her colleagues found that 23 college students sometimes used another online social networking site, MySpace, to enhance their images, say by Photoshopping acne out of a picture or posting a video of themselves driving a sports car at high speeds.
Still, the new findings make sense, remarks psychologist Sandra Calvert of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She emphasizes that social-networking sites have fostered a new type of communication among teens and young adults, in which one person can create personal content that gets broadcast to a multitude of friends.
In a 2009 study of Facebook use among 92 college students, Calvert’s team found that young women reported a whopping average of 401 online friends, while young men reported an average of 269.