(File photo by Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)
(USA TODAY) -- If you "Like" lots of people, places and things on Facebook, you may get
rewarded with discounts and special offers. But new research out today
shows that these public Likes reveal more about you than you may think.
Using a dataset of more than 58,000 Facebook users in the USA
collected between 2007 and 2012, researchers at the University of
Cambridge in the United Kingdom were able to accurately predict certain
qualities and traits, such as race, age, IQ, sexuality, personality,
substance use and political views using Facebook Likes alone.
Likes include photos, friends' status updates, Facebook pages of
products, sports, musicians, books, restaurants or popular websites.
represent a very generic class of digital records, similar to Web
search queries, Web browsing histories, and credit card purchases," says
the study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The participants gave researchers access to their Facebook pages and
they completed a variety of online tests, including personality and IQ.
Their Likes were fed into algorithms and researchers created statistical
models that were able to predict the personal details using Facebook
Likes alone. Results were corroborated with information from the
Facebook profiles and personality tests.
"Each person, on
average, liked 170 things," says psychologist Michal Kosinski, the
study's lead author. "Some liked only one thing and there were people
who liked thousands of things. We removed those. We looked at people who
liked between one and 700 different things."
Sam Gosling, a
psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, calls it a "landmark
study" because it illustrates "how things are no longer ephemeral." He
has been studying Facebook behavior since 2006, and has seen this new
"You 'Like' something. You leave a comment on somebody's
wall. They are now recorded in a way that machines can calibrate and
measure them with great accuracy," he says. "Together, they add up to
substantially more information from which you can make quite reasonably
Fred Wolens, a Facebook spokesman at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., says the predictions are "hardly surprising."
matter the vehicle for information - a bumper sticker, yard sign,
logos on clothing, or other data found online - it has already been
proven that it is possible for social scientists to draw conclusions
about personal attributes based on these characteristics," he says.
Rebecca Lieb, a digital media analyst at the Altimeter Group, a consulting firm in New York City, agrees.
and marketing focus on this, but it's important not to isolate this as
only an online issue or a social network issue," she says. "Data is
being collected at every stage of our lives. If you're using a credit
card, you're opening yourself up to as much data collection as if you're
using Facebook or searching online and getting cookies collected in
The study found the highest accuracy for ethnic
origin and gender, with African Americans and Caucasians correctly
classified in 95% of cases. Males and females were correctly classified
in 93% of cases; Christians and Muslims in 82% of cases. Sexual
orientation was easier to distinguish among males (88%) than females
The study notes that Likes that are the "best predictors of high intelligence include 'Thunderstorms,' The Colbert Report,
'Science" and 'Curly Fries.' Low intelligence was indicated by liking
(Facebook pages for) 'Sephora,' 'I Love Being A Mom,' 'Harley Davidson'
and 'Lady Antebellum.' " Researchers gave no further explanation of
The study also suggests that the findings may have "negative implications for personal privacy."
Jacobs, consumer privacy counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information
Center, a public interest research center in Washington, that focuses
on civil liberties and privacy, says this study aligns with others
involving predictions based on social networking information.
is not unique to Facebook and is not even unique to social networking
in general," Jacobs says. "It's one of the implications of Big Data and
in this case Big Data in a social networking context. Lots of
information makes for certain inferences and sensitive predictions."
"It's the current state of the digital world," adds Kosinski.