Don’t Tell Mom, the Babysitter’s a Fake

Fake iStockA recent article in the Washington Post described a new service from a company called Predictim that claims to help people find the perfect babysitter. The service scans the would-be sitter’s entire Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram history, then uses recent advances in personality and data analytics to assess four “personality features” — propensity toward Bullying / Harassment, Disrespectfulness / Bad Attitude, Explicit Content, and Drug Abuse.

At face value, this type of service has merit. There is a plethora of recent research demonstrating that social media profiles and word use on Twitter reflect the personalities of their users. Thus, it is sensible to think you could combine social media profiles and behavior to predict how a person might behave on the job.

However, these services ignore a long history of research showing that people strongly respond to incentives and will modify or even falsify their responses to succeed. This is a major problem, not just for Predictim, but for any service offering to evaluate someone’s work potential on the basis of their social media pages. Let me explain.

In the mid-2000’s, many employers started using text-searching programs to quickly sift through resumes. This worked just fine until savvy applicants found ways to stuff their resumes with keywords. A simple tactic was to put loads of keywords typically used by employers to select candidates in their resume in white font. When printed, the white font is undetectable to the human eye (on white paper, of course). However, the computers slogging through resumes picked up all of those keywords hidden on the resume, increasing the applicant’s chances of being selected.

Today, text-searching technology has gone beyond keyword-only searches to use natural language to weed out such strategies. However, the point is not about resume stuffing. The point is job applicants strongly respond to incentives and will try to trick or cheat the system to get selected.

In 2013, researchers demonstrated that “Liking” curly fries on Facebook was associated with higher IQ scores. However, as this curious finding made its way through the media, the relationship quickly disappeared; liking curly fries no longer predicts IQ scores. People thought they would appear smarter if they liked curly fries on Facebook, so everyone started liking them, eliminating the relationship.

Which brings us back to choosing babysitters via social media analysis. Virtually all the research mentioned in the opening paragraph demonstrating that personality is linked with social media usage was done in a context in which the people being studied had no incentive to be dishonest. However, when people know their social media profiles are being used to measure their intelligence and select them for jobs, they will start gaming their social media profiles to beat the system. If there is an incentive to have a “clean” social media profile, people will have them.

In fact, many people already have both “professional” and “personal” Facebook accounts. Which account do you think they submit to a potential employer who asks? Which Instagram account will the potential babysitter send to parents?

With employers using social media records to make personnel decisions, the stakes of social media use have become much larger. When careers are at stake, people will carefully cultivate social media profiles to maximize their chances of getting the job. If employers continue to do this, services that specialize in creating sanitized social media accounts for job applicants will emerge. How will employers combat these services? How will firms that assess personality via social media know that the profile they are getting is the real “Risky Rebecca” and not the professionally cultivated “Responsible Rebecca?”

Faking is a common problem in the personnel selection industry, though traditional personality assessments based on questionnaires tackled this issue long ago. Simply put, faking a questionnaire-based personality assessment is extremely difficult and many people who try to fake on such assessments get worse job-fit scores than they would have gotten if they had simply answered honestly. Faking a social media-based personality assessment is much easier, as you just need to keep content positive and to a minimum. If social media analysis companies cannot solve the faking problem, it will quickly put an end to their business model.