Purdue Psychological Sciences researcher: How you think and feel about AI can be traced to your general personality traits

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

Sang Eun Woo poses for a picture with arms crossed.

Sang Eun Woo

During the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists strike, actor Simon Pegg (“Mission: Impossible,” “Shaun of the Dead”) gave his thoughts on the idea of movie studios using artificial intelligence (AI) to create first drafts of scripts:

“If we get AI to write those first drafts the whole time and people are only ever going to be doctoring scripts or giving notes, there’s going to be no sort of genesis in them, no kind of art.”

According to recent work by Purdue University psychological sciences Professor Sang Eun Woo, people’s varying reactions to the role of AI in the current age, such as those expressed by Pegg, may be rooted in their personality traits. Extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness represent the “big five” approach to organizing human personality, which was developed and validated by numerous psychologists since the 1950s. Woo used the “big five” personality as a framework in learning what’s driving individuals’ attitudes toward AI.

Her recent study explored what 1,530 South Koreans between the ages of 19-76 thought about AI after they completed an online personality test. The survey centered on the general concept of AI, not just singular uses, such as online shopping or even robots booping and beeping around restaurants and grocery stores. Teaming with colleague Jiyoung Park, assistant professor at Duksung Women’s University, Woo organized the answers by personality trait to link people’s varying takes on AI to their dispositional characteristics.

Woo found those with the highest scores of neuroticism felt the most negatively about AI in general because of its threat to human jobs, private information or individual autonomy. At the same time, Woo was surprised those deemed most neurotic seemed more willing to connect with AI than she first thought.

“There’s a clear and theoretically understandable connection between neuroticism and negative emotions attached to AI or technology,” Woo said. “However, it turns out these individuals tend to evaluate AI’s sociality positively rather than negatively. Those with high neuroticism appear to view AI as warm and believe that the use of AI would satisfy their need for relatedness, although they may not necessarily believe that AI is functionally useful.”

Participants who were high in openness were most positive about AI and the technology’s abilities to enhance human life.

“Some people have an alarmist attitude like ‘Whoa, the sky is falling apart.’ But maybe you can turn this into an opportunity and work it toward our benefit, our advantage,” Woo said. “That’s more of a high openness sort of perspective on AI-related challenges. As a psychology researcher, I’m always interested in those variations of attitudes from the perspective of openness, plus other personality traits.”

This research was supported by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the National Research Foundation of Korea. Woo said she does plan on extending the work to adults in the United States to compare their personality types and AI attitudes.

“Korea is one of the leading IT countries in the world. Maybe people’s comfort levels with different technologies are pretty high compared to other parts of the world, which speaks to environmental factors,” Woo explained. “It could be a great direction for future study. We’re not doing a worldwide comparison, but we are looking at a U.S. sample for a follow-up study.”

Beyond the “big five” personality traits, Woo’s study also looked at a narrower, more specific personality construct called “personal innovativeness to information technology” (PIIT).

“It’s defined as the willingness of an individual to try out any new information technology,” the researcher said. “We use that as an additional predictor of AI attitudes because we thought it would be more focused and better predictive of the outcomes of interest.”

PIIT can be considered a specific expression of one’s general tendency toward openness, which is the trait Woo has studied the most.

“I’ve always been drawn to the construct of openness. That’s what defines my overall research program, and it can manifest itself in different specific topics,” Woo said. “So, to me, AI is one of those things where if people exercise their openness a little bit toward this new and less known possibility, maybe their attitudes toward certain technologies and certain challenges that come with the technologies can also be different. I’m not necessarily an AI advocate, but I look at this psychological phenomenon as a source of inspiration.”  

Falling in line with initial hypotheses, Woo’s data suggest people who enjoy obtaining the newest smartphones on the market and other gadgets are excited about AI. However, Woo also speculates those who enjoy tinkering and perhaps have an “engineering” mindset might not necessarily show consistently positive attitudes toward AI, compared to those who are excited about technology as a novelty while gravitating toward more “social sciences” or “liberal arts” frames of mind. This is because there are more nuanced interplays between one’s scientific and artistic creativity and varying inclinations toward novelty in general versus innovative technologies more specifically.

Since Woo’s study was published, AI has risen further into the U.S. media coverage. Whether you are a movie star or an office grunt, AI is just starting to affect your life. But just how positively or negatively you react to it depends on your personality, at least in part.

“You either consider it as a competitor or a collaborator/supporter or assistant,” Woo said. “I think recently, the conversations are moving us toward the first direction because of job security and using robots to replace instead of assist human labor. It’s kind of on people’s minds these days.

“Yet, we also see that some people react to the same news or same phenomenon in a much more alarming way than others. Understanding the role of personality can help us get down to the roots of such variations across different people.”