Spending Habits Can Reveal Personality Traits

Among the various types of data that are being collected about you while you browse the internet, you can bet that your spending habits are one of them. That raises the question of just how much someone knows about you when they have a record of your purchases.

There are some obvious conclusions that can be drawn. If you’re regularly buying dog food, you probably have a dog. But can spending habits reveal deeper psychological tendencies? Is your credit card bill the window into your soul?

A new study suggests that, at least to some degree, people’s psychological traits can be guessed from spending records. In the study, researchers from University College London and Columbia University used machine learning techniques to predict different personality traits based on shopping history.

They found several patterns:

  • Buying more plane tickets was related to openness
  • Spending more on food and drink was related to extraversion
  • Donating money was related to higher agreeableness and lower materialism
  • Saving money was related to consciousnessness
  • Buying jewelry was related to materialism

These correlations don’t tell the entire story of someone’s personality. Rather, the spending behaviors analyzed each tended to explain between 1 and 10 percent of the variation in their corresponding personality traits. But they do seem to reveal something, and they might reveal even more when combined with other types of data.

Overall, the researchers found that while these spending measures were informative, they weren’t as informative as Facebook likes and Facebook statuses. That is, algorithms can probably infer more about your personality from Facebook social media profile than your spending history. On the other hand, more sophisticated algorithms than the one used in this study might be able make better guesses about your psychological makeup.

This study is a good reminder that when your data is collected online, the data itself isn’t the whole story. Rather that data can be pieced together to make inferences about who you are as a person. You probably aren’t enthusiastic about the prospect of other people going through your shopping history in the first place, but those records might say more about you than it appears at first glance!