Learning from psychographic personality profiling

Ben Williamson


Contemporary education policy and practice is increasingly influenced by developments in data analytics. The big data analytics story of the year so far concerns the alleged ‘psychographic’ profiling techniques of data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica and its use of the personal data of millions of Facebook users. A torrent of writing has appeared looking at it through various lenses. Among the best commentaries are by Jamie Barlett, who argued that the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook controversy reflects more generally how politics is drifting into a behavioural science of algorithm-based triggers and nudges which are tuned to personality and mood. From a different perspective, David Beer cast the enterprise through a cultural lens, arguing that Cambridge Analytica’s efforts reflect the wider aspirations of the data analytics industry, which ‘is aiming to turn anyone into a data analyst … to speed us up, make us smarter, allow us to see into the hidden depths of organisations, allow us to act in real-time or enable us to predict the future’.

Both these pieces resonate with developments in education that I’m currently tracking–that is, the weaving together of the sciences of the brain and psychology with data-processing educational technologies and education policy. The ways education policy is becoming a kind of behavioural science, supported by intimate data collected about psychological characteristics or even neural information about students, is the central focus of this ongoing work. Expert knowledge about students is increasingly being mediated through an edu-data analytics industry, which is bringing new powers to see into the hidden and submerged depths of students’ cognition, brains and emotions, while also allowing ed-tech companies and policymakers to act ‘smarter’, in real-time and predictively, to intervene in and shape students’ futures.

A more direct line can be drawn between the psychographic personality profiling of Cambridge Analytica and education, however. Although the science of psychographic personality profiling that Cambridge Analytica has boasted it has perfected may well be highly dubious, it is based on an underlying body of psychological knowledge about how to measure and classify people by personality that has a long history. At the core of the Facebook dataset it allegedly used for psychographic profiling and micro-targeting of US voters is a psychological model called ‘The Big Five’, and in particular instruments such as the Big Five Inventory originally created by Oliver John of the Berkeley University Personality Lab. When Cambridge Analytica contracted Aleksandr Kogan of Cambridge University for its psychographics project, it was to implement a digital survey on Facebook that would, like the Big 5 Inventory but adapted into the form of an online quiz, capture intimate personal data on users’ ‘openness’, ‘conscientiousness’, ‘extroversion’, ‘agreeableness’ and ‘neuroticism’ (OCEAN). These categories are believed by personality theorists to be suitable for capturing and classifying the full range of human personalities. OCEAN is a universal, culture-free psychological classification for assessing and categorizing human characteristics.

Having possession of a vast quantified personality database would clearly grant power to any organization wishing to find ways to engage, coerce, trigger or nudge people to think or behave in certain ways–advertisers, say, or propagandists. Whether it worked in Cambridge Analytica’s case remains open to debate–though I think Jamie Bartlett is right to understand this as just one example of a shift to new forms of behavioural government in the wider field of politics. Mark Whitehead and colleagues call it ‘neuroliberalism‘–a style of behavioural  governance that applies psychology, neuroscience and behavioural sciences methods and expertise to public policy and government action–and convincingly show how it has been installed in governments and businesses around the world. In education we have already seen how organizations such as the Behavioural Insights Team (‘Nudge Unit’) are being contracted to provide policy-relevant insights based on psychological and behavioural expertise and knowledge.

The more direct connection between the Big Five personality profiling and education, however, comes in the shape of the OECD’s planned Study on Social and Emotional Skills. A computer-based international assessment scheduled for implementation in 2019, at its core the test is a modified version of the Big Five Inventory. I previously called it ‘PISA for personality testing‘, and detailed how the OECD had drawn explicitly on the expertise of both personality psychologists and econometrists to plan and devise the test. Indeed, the architect of the Big Five Inventory, Oliver John, presented his work at the OECD meeting where its application to social-emotional skills testing was agreed. When it is implemented in 2019, the social and emotional skills test will assess 19 skills which fit into each of the Big Five categories. Moreover, it will collect metadata from test-takers which might also be used to support the assessment.

To be clear, the connection I am trying to make here is that personality profiling–the production of psychographic renderings of human characteristics–is not just confined to Cambridge Analytica, or to Facebook, or to the wider data analytics and advertising industries. Instead, the science of personality testing is slowly entering into education as a form of behavioural governance.

The OECD test is not that dissimilar to the personality quiz at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal. The same psychological assumptions and personality assessment methods underpin both. And while Cambridge Analytica appears to have been an unofficial instrument of a potential government, the OECD assessment is supposed to be a policy instrument of global governance–encouraging national departments of education to focus on calculated levels of student personality. The OECD assessment of social-emotional skills shares personality testing approaches with the Cambridge Analytica personality quiz, and its results are intended to support political decisionmaking.

That said, the OECD test itself will not produce individual psychographic profiles of students. Its emphasis is on aggregating the data in order to assess, at macro-scale, whether countries have the right stock of social-emotional skills to deliver future socio-economic outcomes. Large-scale personality data is presumed to be predictive of potential productivity.

However, the OECD is a powerful influence on national education policies at a global scale. The impact of PISA is well known–it has reshaped school curricula, assessments and whole systems in a ‘global education race‘. Could its emphasis on personality testing similarly reshape schooling practcies and education policy priorities? Already, a commercial market of ed-tech apps and products–such as ClassDojo–has emerged to support and measure the development of students’ social-emotional skills in schools, while educational ‘psycho-policies’ and government interventions have begun to focus on social-emotional categories of learning, such as grit, growth mindset and character, too. In the UK, for example, the Department for Education supports the development of character skills in schools.

While the OECD is only measuring student personality, the inevitable outcome for any countries with disappointing results is that they will want to improve students’ personalities and character to ensure their competitiveness in the global race. Just as PISA has catalysed a global market in products to support the skills tested by the assessment, the same is already occuring around social-emotional learning, character skills and personality development. While ClassDojo is currently popular as a classroom app for supporting growth mindset and character development, it is certainly conceivable that it could be used to promote and reward the Big Five (its website says it is also compatible with Positive Behavioural Interventions and Support, a US Department of Education program, for example–it’s flexible to market demands).  It’s not a huge leap to link ClassDojo to psychographic personality profiling–ClassDojo’s founders have openly described being inspired by economist James Heckman, and Heckman helped shape the OECD’s views on the links between personality and economic productivity.

Just as ClassDojo can already be used to produce visualizations and reports based on teachers’ observations of individual students’ behaviours, future iterations or other products could be used to produce psychographic educational profiles of individuals based on personality categories. It’s not hard to imagine teachers awarding ClassDojo points for behaviours that correlate with the Big Five. Educational applications of wearable biometrics, affective computing and even neuroheadsets to monitor attentional levels and emotional arousal are sitting at the edges of ed-tech implementation, ready to render students in psychographic detail.

Given current developments in personality testing, character development and social-emotional skills modification through ed-tech, maybe we can paraphrase Jamie Bartlett to suggest that not only are politics drifting to behavioural government, but education policy and practice too are beginning to embrace a behavioural science of algorithm-based triggers and nudges which are tuned to personality and mood. Education appears to be generating more intimate data from students, mining beneath the surface of their measurable knowledge to capture interior details about their personality, character and emotions. Policymakers, test developers and ed-tech producers may not openly say so, but just like Cambridge Analytica they are seeking to learn from psychographic personality profiling.

Image by Mark Vegas
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5 Responses to Learning from psychographic personality profiling

  1. paulmartin42 says:

    Hmmm The hook got me reading & the links may be useful but I would maybe worry if my kids’ school started to use such a tool. Who owns the data is one topical question herein UK; the medical research folk are surfacing to defend their territory (Radio4 Science program yesterday). Is this edu doing the same ?

  2. Pingback: Personal development: OECD’s social and emotional skills. Is it science? | onderwijs_2032 science check

  3. Don Presant says:

    Great article and thanks to Audrey Watters for directing me here. I’d add that employers are increasingly using psychometric profiling in their hiring practices. What happens to that data?

  4. janekiev says:

    This is an interesting article with a lot to think about. In a conversation with a teaching colleague regarding this today, she believes that since schools began taking over the explicit teaching of these social/emotional skills, parents are doing less teaching and modeling of them. I certainly see a difference in my classrooms from 30 years ago to today with the increasing number of students who enter my class lacking many of these social and emotional skills that I and my peers learned from our parents and my child learns from me. However, using apps like Class Dojo as behavior modification scares me on so many levels, not least of which is the data being collected and used to further modify their behavior. We are heading down a slippery slope of “educating” children into being mindless followers and not thinkers.

  5. Pingback: Cambridge Analytica, Mindset Marketing, and Behaviorism – Ryan Boren – International Badass Activists

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