(Photo illustration: Yahoo News, photos: AP)
I had been talking to Alexander Nix, the CEO of the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, for only a few minutes before he noticed my leopard-print shoes, and complimented them.
“I’ll put it in your personality file,” Nix joked.
“Does this mean you can already predict my personality?” I asked warily.
“Oh, yes,” Nix said, brushing imaginary dust off his slacks. “We’ve modeled every personality of every voter in the United States.”
If one were to try to imagine the person who claims to know every single American personality, one would probably not think of Nix, an Eton-educated Englishman in a tweed coat who speaks in fluid, grammatically correct paragraphs of his company’s microtargeting strategy. But presidential candidates from Sen. Ted Cruz to Ben Carson are turning to Nix’s massive database and algorithm so they can reach voters likely to support them with specific messages tailored not to their age, race or gender — but to their fundamental natures.
Whether we like it or not, political campaigns know more and more about each and every one of us, and they’re using that data to craft increasingly specific advertising tailored to our lifestyles. Republicans, led by Karl Rove, pioneered the technique of political microtargeting in a presidential election in 2004, to get out the vote for George W. Bush. But Barack Obama’s campaign perfected the strategy in 2008 and 2012, with Republicans falling behind in their microtargeting prowess. Now Cambridge Analytica and other firms serving primarily Republican clients are trying to catch up. Nix says his database has between 4,000 and 5,000 data points on every registered voter in the U.S. — from where you shop to websites you’ve visited, cars you’ve driven, magazines you’ve subscribed to and your all-important voter registration history. This allows campaigns to better target Americans with TV or online ads, direct mail, texts and robo-calls.
(Photo: Cambridge Analytica)
Cambridge Analytica, which is partially owned by hedge fund manager and Cruz donor Robert Mercer, has taken microtargeting in a new direction for its clients in the United States. The young company persuaded hundreds of thousands of Americans to take a 120-question test that measures the “big five” personality traits. These traits — extroversion, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism — are broad, stable psychological characteristics that shape individuals’ behavior and attitudes. The company then matched the personality profiles to the thousands of data points it collected on each U.S. voter and created an algorithm that Nix claims can predict a voter’s personality based on the data alone, without anyone having to take a test.
It makes sense that in such an emotionally charged election year, when many voters feel angry and disenfranchised, a microtargeting company would seek to understand and harness the role of personality in politics. Scientists are still studying how the five main personality traits shape behavior. People who score high on openness tend to be more intellectual and curious, conscientious people are orderly and dutiful, neurotic people are more anxious or depressed, agreeable people are kind and seek social harmony and extroverted people are assertive and sociable. These traits change little once people reach adulthood. Or as Nix joked: “If you’re waiting for your boyfriend to have a massive personality change, it’s not going to happen!”
These personality traits have been shown to influence political behavior. People high in openness, for example, are more likely to be liberal, and those high in conscientiousness are more likely to be conservative. People high in both openness and conscientiousness are more likely to vote than others. (Take a version of the test to see your score.)
What has not been proven yet, however, is whether targeting ads to appeal to certain personality traits is more persuasive or effective than other types of advertising. Nix said he is confident it works, given Cambridge Analytica’s own internal testing. But D. Sunshine Hillygus, a political science professor at Duke University, said she has her doubts. “The role of personality is something that political scientists and psychologists have looked at a bit more just in the last five years,” Hillygus said. “The relationships that they’re finding are not profound. They’re pretty small.”
Nix is confident in the product. “It’s sort of obvious when you think about it, but the more you know about someone, the better you can communicate with them,” he said.
Nix emphasizes that his company’s approach is scientific. “We have rooms of PhDs,” he said. “Rooms and rooms and rooms of them. Like, dozens and dozens and dozens of physicists and cosmologists and astrophysicists, psychologists and experimental psychologists.” Cambridge Analytica, which is based in Manhattan, has about 50 employees, and primarily works on political campaigns. Its parent group, the U.K.-based SCL Group, has worked on ad campaigns for nonprofits and governments, international political campaigns and businesses.
Generally, the company finds persuadable voters and then sorts them into five or six personality types. Nix wouldn’t share the ads it’s working on for Cruz or Carson, but a previous example of its methods can be seen in a series of online and TV ads for former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton’s super-PAC. (Cruz’s campaign has paid $750,000 to the company so far, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings.)
In five different ads, Bolton appeals to people with different personality types and tries to persuade them to support the Senate candidates he backed. People high in neuroticism — who tend to be more prone to fear, anxiety and depression — were served up an ad with Bolton abruptly intoning, “Terrorists love porous borders,” as images of Islamic State fighters riding around in a truck are juxtaposed with footage of the U.S.-Mexico border. A large explosion goes off halfway through the ad, and then Bolton appears again, endorsing Tom Cotton for U.S. Senate.
Meanwhile, a different ad targeted people high in agreeableness, who value social harmony and kindness. In this ad, Bolton says he “worked together” with policy leaders on “both sides of the aisle.” He then urges voters to support Sen. Thom Tillis to create a “safer world for our children.” Tillis’ opponent is neither mentioned nor maligned.
I asked Nix to send the ad that would most effectively target me, as a person who is high in openness, extroversion and agreeableness, and lower in conscientiousness and neuroticism. The ad is called “refugees” and was cut by Bolton in support of Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts. The ad highlights the millions of families fleeing Syria, pulling on my agreeable heartstrings by showing their plight. Then a female narrator says that “brave and decisive leaders” could change this course, endorsing Brown. The ad was targeted to young women high in openness, and emphasizes global events on the theory that open people like to think their individual ballot box choices affect the wider world.
Cambridge Analytica places the ads during the TV time slot that is most heavily populated with people of the personality type it is trying to reach, based on its calculations. With satellite TV and some cable services, it can place an ad directly into a specific household, reaching a more and more individualized audience. It usually divides voters into five or six buckets based on personality types, but Nix predicts those buckets will get smaller and smaller with time.
“If you have unlimited money and resources, you could hypothetically segment voters down to individuals and you could literally say, ‘I want 250 million messages — one for every single person,’” Nix said.
The microtargeting of political advertising comes at a time when more and more Americans are choosing news sources that align with their partisan beliefs, creating a “media echo chamber” effect that some political scientists believe heightens political polarization in the country. Microtargeting could enhance this trend, leading to a situation where each American is receiving political advertisements that reinforce his beliefs and play to his personality type, and is seeing fewer that challenge his beliefs.
But Nix claims that people are more alike than they like to think.
“We as a firm undertake elections all around the world,” Nix said, listing Argentina and Italy as examples. “The first thing the clients always say to me is … ‘You may understand my neighbors in all the countries around me, but this is this country, and we are different.’ And you sort of look at him and say, ‘Well, yes, but no.’”
“You are different, but you’re humans,” he said. “The basic behavioral drivers are all the same.”