Can We Instantly Determine Personality on Instagram? – Psychology Today

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People expect others to put their best foot forward when choosing what to post on social media sites like Instagram. In fact, one study showed that only 2% of survey respondents expected others to always be honest on social media. However, research shows that people can get a surprisingly accurate read on someone’s personality from their social media profile. In fact, one study found that using people’s Facebook “likes” to predict their responses on a personality questionnaire was more accurate than asking their own friends and family to guess their responses on the questionnaire.
But what about Instagram, a site that contains mostly images, rather than words? Is a picture (or dozens of pictures) worth a thousand words, or at least a few personality questionnaires? A new study by Sarah Osterholz and colleagues, just published in the Journal of Personality, explored people’s ability to judge others’ personalities accurately, based solely on their Instagram profiles.
In the study, researchers collected personality data from over 100 Instagram users, who completed questionnaires assessing their levels of self-esteem, narcissism, and the Big 5 personality traits (extraversion, openness to experience, emotional stability, conscientiousness, and agreeableness). In order to ensure that these personality assessments were especially accurate, they also had a close friend or family member of each user rate the user on these same traits. Later, a separate group of observers were asked to rate the personalities of the users after viewing their Instagram profiles. So, these observers were complete strangers judging the users solely based on their social media image.
Similar to other research that has examined how accurately people perceive personality from social media profiles, Osterholz and colleagues found that strangers’ judgments of the users’ personalities on the Big 5 traits were significantly correlated with the users’ actual personality. Extraversion and openness were the easiest to judge, meaning that observers were most accurate in judging users on these traits. This study also showed that observers can somewhat accurately infer levels of narcissism and self-esteem too.
One surprise was that participants were more accurate at judging users’ emotional stability than has been shown in other social media studies. The researchers speculated that perhaps Instagram, with its focus on expressive photos, may have given participants a better sense of the users’ emotional experiences.
You may wonder how “accurate” the observers’ judgments need to be in order for the researchers to describe them as accurate. In this sort of research, a judgment is considered accurate if it is statistically significantly correlated with the user’s actual level of the trait (as determined by the user’s own ratings of their personality and a close friend or family member’s ratings). In theory, these correlations can range from 0 (no relationship at all between the user’s actual personality and observers’ ratings) to 1 (a perfect correlation, where observers rate users exactly in accordance with their actual personality). Correlations between observers’ ratings and users’ actual personalities were between .25 for conscientiousness and .44 for extraversion. These associations are in the small to moderate range. That means that while observers showed some ability to accurately infer users’ personality traits, they were far from being perfectly accurate.
The researchers also aimed to identify which cues in the users’ profiles were the most informative regarding their personalities. They thoroughly analyzed the profiles, coding them on various objective attributes, like the user’s level of Instagram activity (e.g., number of followers, number of accounts followed), how colorful and positive their posts were, and the extent to which they emphasized self-promotion or showed off their physical appearance.
When users had a lot of self-promoting or appearance-focused posts, observers were especially likely to perceive them as extraverted, narcissistic, and having high self-esteem. However, the users’ actual levels of those traits (as determined by their own and their friend’s ratings of the user) were barely correlated at all with making these types of posts.
Other cues led observers to more accurate conclusions. High levels of Instagram activity were associated with more extraversion, openness and narcissism, and observers picked up on this. Observers also thought that users with active, positive, colorful posts were higher in all seven of the traits they rated. But in actuality, making these types of posts was only associated with users’ levels of extraversion and self-esteem.
We judge others’ personalities from Instagram and can do so somewhat accurately. This is most pronounced for the traits of extraversion and openness to experience. However, not all cues used to form these judgments on profiles are directly linked to users’ genuine personality traits — some are, while others aren’t.
We often assume that people who frequently post self-promotional content or focus on their appearance are narcissistic, self-confident, and extraverted. Surprisingly, posting such content hardly correlates at all with actually possessing high levels of these traits. Interestingly, the most reliable indicators of personality traits on Instagram are the user’s overall activity level on the site and the colorfulness and positivity of their posts. So if you’re hoping to gain insight into someone’s personality through Instagram, these are the factors that warrant your attention.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Albright College.
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You just met The One or maybe a shady character. Is your impression correct? It's a mysterious package, delivered by subtle sensory clues.


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