Friday, October 11, 2019

We are capable of making accurate personality judgements in computer-mediated communication by means of even small cues like nicknames

The Name Is the Game: Nicknames as Predictors of Personality and Mating Strategy in Online Dating. Benjamin P. Lange et al. Front. Commun., February 12 2019.

Objective: We investigated the communicative function of online dating nicknames. Our aim was to assess if it is possible to correctly guess personality traits of a user simply by reading his/her nickname.

Method: We had 69 nickname users (average age: 33.59 years, 36 female) complete questionnaires assessing their personality (Big 5 + narcissism) and mating strategy (short- vs. long-term). We then checked (using a total of 638 participants, average age: 26.83 years, 355 female), whether personality and mating strategy of the nickname users could be assessed correctly based only on the nickname. We also captured the motivation to contact the user behind a nickname and looked at linguistic features of the nicknames.

Results: We found that personality and mating strategy could be inferred from a nickname. Furthermore, going by trends, women were better at intersexual personality judgments, whereas men were better in intrasexual judgements. We also found several correlates of the motivation to contact the person behind the nickname. Among other factors, long nicknames seemed to deter people from contacting the nickname user.

Conclusions: Findings display that humans are capable of making accurate personality judgements in computer-mediated communication by means of even small cues like nicknames.


Language-based face-to-face (ftf) interaction can be considered the most natural way of communication (Kock, 2004). New social media have transformed communication, though, as sender and receiver are not necessarily copresent in such a mediated context. However, communication in the digital world is still language-based, even when only in the form of written language (Koch et al., 2005).

Research on such computer-mediated communication (cmc) can be divided into different approaches. Two of them are: (1) the reduced-social-cues approach (rsc) (Sproull and Kiesler, 1986), and (2) the hyperpersonal communication approach (hp) (Walther, 1996). The first assumes that cmc filters out social context cues. The second emphasizes that cmc might surpass ftf communication, as the sender has the opportunity to optimize their self-representation while the receiver idealizes the sender on the basis of the available cues. Here lies the question whether people are able to, and actually do hide their “true selves,” that is their identity (e.g., personality), or whether they, despite being relatively anonymous, inevitably communicate aspects of their respective identity and personality that are in turn perceived by the receiver (Walther and Parks, 2002).

Sex or gender, respectively, are central features of one's identity and personality (e.g., Mealey, 2000; Ellis et al., 2008). As a matter of fact, sex has been central in cmc research. For instance, Guiller and Durndell (2007) found that in cmc men are more dominant than women, whereas women are more supportive than men—findings reminiscent of sex differences in ftf communication (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 2003).

A large body of research (e.g., Savicki et al., 1999; Thomson and Murachver, 2001; Koch et al., 2005) shows that only by reading text, people are able to guess the sex of the writers above chance. The same seems to be true for personality judgments (Park et al., 2015). Entire texts are not necessary, though. Lange et al. (2016b) used pseudonyms chosen by students in written exams, and had participants rate them on assumed sex of the user and other attributes. They found that sex could be guessed correctly above chance with a large effect size. Also, participants ascribed typical female and male attributes to the pseudonyms and even tried to retrieve information on the users' personality. It was also found that women, more than men, used diminutive suffixes in their pseudonyms (like -i in “cuti”). In line with these findings, Heisler and Crabill (2006) demonstrated that the majority of their participants considered themselves capable of correctly guessing the sex and age of the users of e-mail usernames. Moreover, their participants attempted to rate the supposed owners of the e-mail addresses also with respect to, among other aspects, their relationship status.

Not only is sex a matter of interest with respect to the digital world, the phenomenon of online dating is, too (Valkenburg and Peter, 2007). Considering that mate choice is one of the most important areas in social life (Buss, 2003) and that people are increasingly shifting their activities from the offline to the online world, it does not surprise that online dating has become a billion-dollar business (Sautter et al., 2010).

Human mating in general and sex differences in human mating have attracted numerous researchers and have produced a veritable deluge of related literature (e.g., Buss and Barnes, 1986; Buss, 1989; Buss and Schmitt, 1993; for an overview, see Buss, 2003, 2016; Schwarz and Hassebrauck, 2012). This research has, on the one hand, identified several characteristics that both sexes prefer in a mate (e.g., healthy), as well as those that are more preferred by women (e.g., good earning capacity, college graduate) and those more preferred by men (e.g., physically attractive) (Buss et al., 1990). The role of language in human mate choice has also been examined recently (e.g., Lange et al., 2014, 2016a). On the other hand, empirical mate choice research has documented that women are more exacting in mate choice decisions, while men face stronger same-sex competition (for an overview, see Buss, 2003). The first process, called intersexual selection, is the actual mate choice, which in most species occurs as female mate choice. That is, women because of having higher obligatory costs (Trivers, 1972), are more selective, while men, whose obligatory costs are lower, compete more strongly with other men in order to be chosen. This is called intrasexual selection (for an overview, see Buss, 2003).

Another area of interest in mate choice research is the distinction between short-term mating (the search for an affair, a one-night stand, etc.) and long-term mating (the search for a committed, steady relationship) (Buss and Schmitt, 1993), which can be referred to as a person's mating strategy (Schmitt, 2005). This distinction is somewhat linked to females being choosier than males. As the costs for males are lower than for females, men show a tendency to be relatively indiscriminate in short-term mating. A bad mate choice imposes higher costs on women than on men—and this applies more to short-term than to long-term mating. Generally, women show a preference for a long-term mate (Buss and Schmitt, 1993). As a result, men for whom short-term mating is a particularly useful strategy might want to pretend to be interested in long-term mating, while in fact they are not. Thus, women should be particularly interested in detecting a man's mating strategy (Buss, 2003).

Not only dating in general but online dating as well has excited some research interest—among others, also with respect to rsc and hp (for an overview, see Finkel et al., 2012). It has been assumed, taking the hp perspective, that the cmc limitations in online dating can be compensated by language style and choice of words (Walther et al., 2005). While physical cues are missing in cmc, the importance of verbal cues might be rising. The question then might very well be, this time with respect to online dating: what about single words instead of entire texts?

As emphasized above, communication only by means of single words is even more limited than communicating through written texts. Still, those single words might communicate crucial information (Lange et al., 2016a). In accordance with findings on mate choice in “real life,” Whitty and Buchanan (2010) found that women were more attracted to online user names (hereinafter called nicknames) (e.g., in terms of the motivation to contact the person behind the name) that signaled intelligence, while men were more attracted to nicknames indicative of physical attractiveness. So the choice of a nickname in online dating can be used for impression management—just like hp would predict. Online dating is indeed an area in the digital world in which making a good first impression is essential (Whitty and Buchanan, 2010).

Apart from classical mate choice criteria, the personality of a potential mate is crucial, too (e.g., Buss et al., 1990; Botwin et al., 1997; Escorial and Martín-Buro, 2012). In this context, research by Back et al. (2008) is particularly relevant for the research presented in the article at hand. They retrieved personality scores of 599 participants (Big Five, e.g., extraversion; narcissism) and additionally asked them for their e-mail addresses. Back et al. (2008) then presented the e-mail names to 100 participants who judged the personality dimensions of the e-mail name users on the same personality items used before. Personality dimensions were detected correctly, with results being statistically significant for all dimensions except for extraversion. Back et al. (2008) also showed that personality ratings were linked to certain attributes of the e-mail address. For instance, the perception of conscientiousness was positively correlated with both the number of characters and dots the names consisted of, while number of digits was negatively correlated with it.

The current study had the objective of replicating the findings by Back et al. (2008) with respect to online dating as well as to extend them. Back et al. (2008) used e-mail names and had a general cmc context. We, on our part, wanted to focus more on nicknames. This was inspired by research on the psychology of pseudonyms (e.g., Lange et al., 2016b) as well as based on the following assumption: While e-mail addresses are often created based on the rule “first name.last name” (e.g., john.smith@…), nicknames are assumed to be more creative (cf. Whitty and Buchanan, 2010). Also unlike Back et al. (2008), we were interested in the context of online dating and mate choice. Whitty and Buchanan (2010) have already shown that such an approach is worthwhile. Still, the scarcity of such research calls for more studies of this kind.

The question might also be asked, as to whether people are able to detect the mating strategy of a potential mate. It was also of interest whether the motivations for contacting a person behind a nickname, based only on the nickname, might differ (Whitty and Buchanan, 2010). Furthermore, we wanted additionally to investigate whether one of the two sexes are better at judging women's and men's personality based on their nicknames. Mating is an area of social life, where making a proper choice seems particularly important (Buss, 2003). So, it seemed of practical relevance to elucidate what mate choice-relevant information can be retrieved form an online dating nickname.

Finally, we were interested in the linguistic features of the nicknames, and the subsequent question whether we would find correlations between these features and other variables of interest (Back et al., 2008; Lange et al., 2016b).

We proposed the following hypothesis (cf. Back et al., 2008):

H1: People are able to correctly guess online daters' personality by means only of their nicknames. Under personality, we understood the Big Five dimensions which are: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (McCrae and John, 1992). The Big Five have been used quite often in research focusing on personality perceptions by means of certain cues (e.g., Küfner et al., 2010; Qui et al., 2015). As another personality dimensions, we added narcissism following the mentioned study by Back et al. (2008). Other researchers have also included this trait, which is one of three traits of the so-called Dark Triad, into their research in order to elucidate, whether it can be detected (e.g., Buffardi and Campbell, 2008; Vander Molen et al., 2018).

Furthermore, we had four research questions that were derived from mate choice research (see above) and other studies on the psychology of nicknames or usernames (Back et al., 2008; Whitty and Buchanan, 2010; Lange et al., 2016b):

RQ1: Are people able to correctly guess online daters' mating strategy by means only of their nicknames?

RQ2: What are the correlates of the motivation to contact a person behind a nickname?

RQ3: Does one sex show greater accuracy in personality judgments than the other?

RQ4: What are the linguistic correlates of the personality of the nickname users and how are they perceived? In other words, are linguistic features significant mediators of judgments?

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