Psychometrics driving vote outcomes?

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Psychometrics driving vote outcomes?

Blog Post

Written by John Berry on 1st May 2017. Revised 22nd April 2018.

4 min read

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Recent press (in March 2017, repeated again in March 2018) has perhaps been a bit unfair since Cambridge Analytica would claim that their work does not directly grant political activists influence over voters. As Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO commented “There’s nothing magical or Pied Piper-ish about it. It doesn’t give us special powers over people. We’re all trying to better use the behavioural sciences to do our work in more effective ways.”

Nix was commenting about claims of voter influence in elections and referenda. He might be right but it does not dampen the speculation about dirty deeds using social media during recent months.

Machiavellian influence

It doesn’t stop those holding opposing viewpoints from seeing a Machiavellian influence that forces seismic shifts in voter outcome. We’ve only to look at the Brexit and Trump votes to have many claiming ‘fix’.

So what’s it all about?

Two years ago TimelessTime ran a seminar session titled “Psychometrics and counter-terrorism research: just what can you tell from public information about how a person will behave and perform?” As one of the research papers discussed suggested, private traits and attributes can be predicted from daily records of human behaviour.

Psychometrics driving vote outcomes?

At that time we were simply reporting on research at the Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University.

Roll forward two years and we now potentially have the hypothesis extended. If it’s possible to predict a person’s traits and attributes from their public behaviour, is it not also possible to influence that behaviour? Is it not possible to use their traits in conjunction with emotionally charged stories to cause a particular behaviour?

From Facebook to behaviour

In other words, is it not possible to consume behavioural data such as Facebook ‘likes’ to infer a person’s personality? And once we have their personality, is it not possible to bombard them via social media with carefully choreographed emotionally charged stories to develop a desired attitude towards a particular scenario – like an upcoming vote?

One academic paper commented, “easily accessible digital records of behaviour, Facebook Likes, can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including… personality and intelligence.”

If we meld that with research into emotions, we see the possibility that if a person is presented with a particular image or story that triggers an emotional reaction and that person has a particular personality, they will likely react in a particular way.

OK, it’s not as simple as that. There are a lot of other variables like the person’s upbringing, their education, societal norms and the like, but you perhaps get the idea? If we can bombard a person of a particular personality with a particular story, will they vote in a particular way?

In a nutshell, that’s what Cambridge Analytica and others were accused of in The Guardian article of the 4th March 2017.

Parallels with recruitment

Switching focus to the world of employment, over the years, research into personality has matured. Today a job candidate can do a test, the results of which can give an analyst a pretty good picture of their personality. As suggested above, personality is a key driver of behaviour – in our case, behaviour in the workplace.

As the Guardian article suggests, others believe in the science, so why not managers?

Psychometrics has a key role in recruitment at both early sifting and later selection. We’ve written on this many times. Manager should not be fearful of psychometrics. A test of general mental ability and personality gives a hiring manager a huge amount of evidence about a candidate. Like science in general, it’s the way psychometrics is used that determines societal attitudes and suspicion. In the case of voter influence it may be unfair to damn the science because of the use.


Organisational psychologists who use psychometrics in recruitment abide by strict ethics standards, working with managers, using data only for the purpose intended and destroying data when no longer needed.

If you’d like to talk further about using psychometrics in your recruitment, call us. But sorry, if it’s voter influencing you want, you’ll need to look elsewhere!