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Psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion

  1. D. J. Stillwelld,2
  1. aColumbia Business School, Columbia University, New York City, NY 10027;
  2. bGraduate School of Business, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305;
  3. cWharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104;
  4. dCambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, CB2 3EB, United Kingdom
  1. Edited by Susan T. Fiske, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, and approved October 17, 2017 (received for review June 17, 2017)


Building on recent advancements in the assessment of psychological traits from digital footprints, this paper demonstrates the effectiveness of psychological mass persuasion—that is, the adaptation of persuasive appeals to the psychological characteristics of large groups of individuals with the goal of influencing their behavior. On the one hand, this form of psychological mass persuasion could be used to help people make better decisions and lead healthier and happier lives. On the other hand, it could be used to covertly exploit weaknesses in their character and persuade them to take action against their own best interest, highlighting the potential need for policy interventions.


People are exposed to persuasive communication across many different contexts: Governments, companies, and political parties use persuasive appeals to encourage people to eat healthier, purchase a particular product, or vote for a specific candidate. Laboratory studies show that such persuasive appeals are more effective in influencing behavior when they are tailored to individuals’ unique psychological characteristics. However, the investigation of large-scale psychological persuasion in the real world has been hindered by the questionnaire-based nature of psychological assessment. Recent research, however, shows that people’s psychological characteristics can be accurately predicted from their digital footprints, such as their Facebook Likes or Tweets. Capitalizing on this form of psychological assessment from digital footprints, we test the effects of psychological persuasion on people’s actual behavior in an ecologically valid setting. In three field experiments that reached over 3.5 million individuals with psychologically tailored advertising, we find that matching the content of persuasive appeals to individuals’ psychological characteristics significantly altered their behavior as measured by clicks and purchases. Persuasive appeals that were matched to people’s extraversion or openness-to-experience level resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases than their mismatching or unpersonalized counterparts. Our findings suggest that the application of psychological targeting makes it possible to influence the behavior of large groups of people by tailoring persuasive appeals to the psychological needs of the target audiences. We discuss both the potential benefits of this method for helping individuals make better decisions and the potential pitfalls related to manipulation and privacy.


  • ?1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: sm4409{at}gsb.columbia.edu.
  • ?2M.K. and D.J.S. contributed equally to this work.

  • Author contributions: S.C.M. and M.K. designed research; S.C.M., M.K., and D.J.S. performed research; S.C.M. analyzed data; and S.C.M., M.K., G.N., and D.J.S. wrote the paper.

  • Conflict of interest statement: D.J.S. received revenue as the owner of the myPersonality Facebook application until it was discontinued in 2012. Revenue was received from displaying ads within the application and charging for a premium personality test. The revenue received by D.J.S. was unrelated to the studies presented in this paper, and there will be no future revenue generated from the application. None of the authors received any compensation for working on the marketing campaigns used to collect data for the studies presented in this manuscript.

  • This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

  • Data deposition: The data reported in this paper have been deposited in the Open Science Framework (OSF), http://www.danielhellerman.com/srjv7/?view_only=90316b0c2e06420bbc3a1cc857a9e3c7.

  • This article contains supporting information online at www.danielhellerman.com/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1710966114/-/DCSupplemental.

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