Thursday, July 5, 2012

Wikipedians: are they really grumpy and close-minded?

A few years ago, New Scientist website published an article called “Psychologist finds Wikipedians grumpy and close-minded” that reported the findings of a study claiming that members of Wikipedia are lower than non-members in the personality traits of agreeableness and openness to experience. The claims in this article were widely repeated across the internet. The findings seemed surprising because agreeableness is usually associated with helping behaviour and Wikipedians freely volunteer their services; plus openness to experience is associated with intellectual interests and Wikipedians help promulgate knowledge. The authors argued that the prosocial behaviour associated with sharing information on Wikipedia is associated with ‘egocentric motives’ rather than altruistic ones. They also claimed that the surprisingly lower openness of Wikipedians also reflected these ‘egocentric motives’. There are some problems with the authors’ conclusions. The most glaring one is that their stated conclusions about openness to experience contradict the data they provide in the article: see the Table below for an excerpt.

Differences in average personality traits reported in the study (note that a 1-5 scale is used)

Openness to experience



As can be seen, contrary to their statements, Wikipedia members of both sexes actually had higher means on openness to experience compared to non-members, not lower as the authors stated. Perhaps the authors’ were confused by the presence of a serious typographical error that appears in the Results section of their article (on p. 680). The sentence starts off saying “a significant difference was found for the openness trait” but then goes on to say, “that is, the average agreeableness trait among Wikipedia members was significantly lower…” (Emphasis added). The phrase containing “agreeableness” is a repetition of a phrase from the previous sentence that actually discussed the results for agreeableness. In the Discussion section they then go on to state that Wikipedians were in fact lower in openness to experience (perhaps they wrote this after reading the typo in their Results) and then go on to speculate about why. But of course, since their results are back-to-front, their conclusions about openness to experience make little sense.

Another thing I found odd was that having decided on the counter-intuitive finding that Wikipedians, with their open sharing of knowledge and ideas, are actually low in openness to experience, they then interpret this in terms of “egocentric” motives. Although correct that Wikipedians were somewhat lower in agreeableness than non-members, and lower agreeableness may be associated with greater egotism, there is no research evidence linking egocentric motives to low openness to experience. Since the results actually showed that members were higher not lower in openness to experience compared to non-members, it seems possible that they are also motivated by greater intellectual curiosity and love of knowledge than non-members, motives actually known to be consistent with high openness to experience. 

Now let’s consider the results for agreeableness. While true there was a statistically significant difference, how large was it really? For female members the average difference was 0.44 and for males it was 0.16. Considering that this is on a 5-point scale, a difference of less than half a point is not a huge one. And also consider that although somewhat lower, the average agreeableness for Wikipedians still scored above 3, the mid-point of the scale. A reasonable interpretation would be that although somewhat less agreeable, they were not particularly disagreeable either. The authors speculated that lower agreeableness was associated with “egocentric motives”. However, agreeableness is a very broad feature of personality that has a number of components, so the result is open to a range of possible interpretations. One possible explanation, admittedly speculative, is that members might be more argumentative than non-members and hence more willing to engage in debate, and debate is a daily occurrence on Wikipedia.

One final discrepancy in the research report was that in the report's Abstract, the authors reported that Wikipedians were lower in conscientiousness than non-members, although they did not state this conclusion anywhere in the body of the report. Info in their Table of results (not displayed here) shows that male members were somewhat lower than male non-members, but female members were slightly higher than female non-members, so the differences in conscientiousness are inconsistent across gender. The authors did note that females generally were significantly higher in conscientiousness than males, which fits with their Table’s results.

So rather than saying that Wikipedians are “grumpy and close-minded” due to “egocentric motives” as so many of us have been led to believe, it may be closer to the truth that they are actually “argumentative and open-minded” perhaps due to their passion for sharing information. But to be really honest, the results are still open to interpretation because these are fairly broad personality dimensions that encompass a range of narrower personality traits. To determine if Wikipedians actually are guided by egocentric motives, it would be necessary to use more specific measures than the Big Five, such as a measure of narcissism perhaps. The moral of the story seems to be to check the source of your information carefully for accuracy rather than just believing whatever you read before spreading it around. 

ADDENDUM: According to a 2011 survey of Wikipedia editors over 91% of editors are male. As noted above, the difference between male members and non-members on agreeableness was even smaller than the difference between females, so it seems fair to say that the case for Wikipedians being "grumpy" has been overstated! 

Yair Amichai–Hamburger, Naama Lamdan, Rinat Madiel, and Tsahi Hayat (2006). Personality Characteristics of Wikipedia Members CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11 (6), 679-681 DOI: 10.1089/cpb.2007.0225

A new version of this article now appears on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else at Psychology Today. 

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

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