Extremely Obvious Study Reveals One Unnerving Future of Shopping

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The Ig Nobel Prizes are the Razzies of the science world. For almost 30 years, Harvard and Radcliffe colleges have put together a celebration of "research projects that 'first make people laugh, and then make them think.'" Some past winners include studies of how chimps interact with zoo visitors, the relative health benefits of cannibalism for humans, and one that's titled, in part, "Lessons Learned from Self-Colonoscopy."

"Can Psychological Traits Be Inferred from Spending? Evidence from Transaction Data" seems like a candidate for inclusion (or at least nomination) at first glance. Of course you can guess someone's personality based on how they shop — economics is about studying why we make choices, after all, and it's not a big leap to conclude that an impulse shopper may do more than shop impulsively.

In this case, there may be more going on beneath the surface. The researchers, who come from Columbia University and University College London, were actually looking at whether machines can predict your personality from your shopping habits. The results were fairly consistent across socioeconomic groups; the answer is yes.

As news, it's a bigger deal than it sounds like. "This means that as personality predictions become more accurate and ubiquitous, and as behavior is recorded digitally at an increasing scale," the study authors write, "there is an urgent need for policymakers to ensure that individuals (and societies) are protected against potential abuse of such technologies." We've got a bias toward machines when it comes to staying honest, but it's always worth remembering who does the programming.