It’s easy to draw conclusions about someone’s personality based on how they tweet. Everyone knows who the self promotional tweeters are, the ones that always want you to read something they wrote or back their Kickstarter campaign. We appreciate the pensive tweeters who send out interesting links or the hypersocial ones who love their hashtags. Then there are sort of crazy people on Twitter. We all know one or two of these.
Thanks to a free iPad contest and some sophisticated machine learning technology, researchers can now spot psychopaths on Twitter based on their speech patterns. A team from Florida Atlantic University recently teamed up with the Online Privacy Foundation and Kaggle, a platform for data prediction competitions, to analyze over three million tweets from 2,927 tweeters in 80 countries. Each of the participants agreed to have her Twitter data — everything from tweets send to retweets and replies to Klout scores — scrutinized by data scientists who compared everything against the findings of a Cornell study from last year that scrutinized the speech patterns of psychopaths. (One lucky participant won an iPad.) The researchers plan to present their findings at Def Con this week.
Researchers were looking specifically for “The Dark Triad” of personality traits: psychopathy, Machiavellianism and Narcissism. The Cornell study tells us that psychopaths use words that relate to their physical needs like food, sex or money about twice as often as normal people. They also used more conjunctions like “because,” “since” or “so that” and spoke in the past tense more frequently than everyone else. Armed with these and other data points, Kaggle handed the tweet data over to 113 teams who competed to find the best statistical model to analyze the information. Additionally, participants were asked to take a personality test that asked whether they agreed with statements like these:
1. Payback needs to be quick and nasty.
2. I like to pick on losers.
1. I have been compared to famous people.
2. I insist on getting the respect I deserve.
1. You should wait for the right time to get back at people.
2. Most people are suckers.
Ultimately, Florida Atlantic University’s Randell Wald said that the results showed “a number of statistically significant correlations between an individual’s darker personality traits and their Twitter activity.” Of the 2,900 or so participants, 41 were certified psychopaths, a figure that’s congruent with the generally accepted statistic that one percent of people in society are psychopathic. The rest of the folks fell into a spectrum that ranged from normal to psychopathic.
Researchers warned, however, that the results shouldn’t necessarily be taken too seriously. And for obvious privacy reasons, we should avoid using this kind of information to preselect potential criminals. “The FBI could use this to flag potential wrongdoers, but I think it’s much more compelling for psychologists to use to understand large communities of people,” Charles Sumner of the Online Privacy Foundation told Forbes. “Just because someone scores highly doesn’t mean they’re criminally minded. Using this to try to spot someone who’s going to commit a crime is going to result in catching people who aren’t going to. But in general it’s interesting. You can use it to look at large groups of people and ask, ‘Are we becoming more antisocial’?”
What could be more interesting is to keep track of data sets like this over time and learn more generally how social media use affects our personalities. It’s already been shown that increased social media use can lead to psychological disorders and the development of narcissism in teens, not to mention bad grades and lower reading retention rates. Then again, other studies show that social media makes teens more empathetic, more aware of each others’ needs. Then again, as this most recent study suggests, maybe social media is simply a reflection of the real world which is full of psychopaths and narcissists. Twitter just makes it easier to be crazy in public.