To conduct the study, the researchers collected 236 profiles of college-aged people from the United States (facebook) and Germany (StudiVZ, SchuelerVZ). The researchers used questionnaires to assess the profile owners' actual personality characteristics as well as their
ideal-personality traits (how they wished to be). The personality traits included: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness.
Observers rated the profiles of people they did not know. These ratings were then compared to the profile owners' actual personality and their ideal-personality. Personality impressions based on online social network profiles were accurate and were not affected by profile owners' self-idealization.
Accuracy was strongest for extraversion — paralleling results of face-to-face encounters — and lowest for neuroticism. Those findings were consistent with previous research showing that neuroticism is difficult to detect without being in person.
"I was surprised by the findings because the widely held assumption is that people are using their profiles to promote an enhanced impression of themselves," says Sam Gosling, a psychologist at The University of Texas at Austin. "In fact, our findings suggest that online social networking profiles convey rather accurate images of the profile owners, either because people aren't trying to look good or because they are trying and failing to pull it off.
"I think that being able to express personality accurately contributes to the popularity of online social networks in two ways," says Gosling. "First, it allows profile owners to let others know who they are and, in doing so, satisfies a basic need to be known by others. Second, it means that profile viewers feel they can trust the information they glean from online social network profiles, building their confidence in the system as a whole."
Citation: Findings will appear in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science