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Why Does This App Think I’m A Sociopath?

Crystal would like to improve email by illuminating your recipients’ personality. But when it diagnosed me, it raised surprising issues.

Why Does This App Think I’m A Sociopath?
[Photo: Flickr user Smlp.co.uk]

When I looked myself up on Crystal, an app that aims to help people “communicate with empathy” by profiling their email recipients’ personality, it felt like reading a report card from a preschool class: “Sarah is analytical, skeptical, and focused on results, but also appreciates ideas and likes to talk.”

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Fair enough. The app also, based on what I’ve written online, laid out ideas for “speaking,” “emailing,” “working,” and “selling” to Sarah.

Do I “use data to prove a point”? Sure. But when I arrived at the “It comes naturally to Sarah to…” section, things turned a bit darker. According to Crystal, it does not come naturally to me to:

  • Easily perceive the emotions of others
  • Comfort someone in a sad situation
  • Reveal vulnerability to build trust
  • Feel naturally empathetic

Crystal had, in many ways, diagnosed me as a sociopath. Meanwhile, seemingly everyone in my Twitter was raving about its “eerily accurate” assessments. Of course, they were getting assessments like “friendly, casual, and extremely perceptive.”

To be clear: I don’t remember ever torturing any animals as a child.

How was Crystal diagnosing these personalities, anyway?

I called founder Drew D’Agostino to find out. “I actually have a fairly similar profile,” he reassured me. “I mean, mine is not all the way there. But it says some similar things.”

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D’Agostino based Crystal on a common personality profiling system he used in a previous job to better understand how to communicate with employees. Called DISC, the assessment measures the four behavioral traits that make up its acronym–Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness—and uses the results to build profiles about how people work.

Employees of companies that use DISC assessments typically take a test to determine whether they are, say, an “achiever,” a “counselor,” a “creative,” or an “enthusiast.” Crystal instead attempts to match people to these types of profiles based only on publicly available text written by or about them. In order to do so, the startup experimented with beta users who had taken an actual DISC assessment to see which changes in the algorithm brought the app’s results closer to their self-reported DISC assessment results. “You’re not going to find a published paper from an academic somewhere about the theory,” D’Agostino says. “It’s really just completely practice.”

Crystal uses natural language processing, for instance, to look for patterns in what people write. In my case, D’Agostino says, one factor that may have led to the app pegging me as direct, blunt, and focused on results is that I write in short, direct sentences without a lot of adjectives or hyperbole. See what I mean? There are “thousands of criteria” like this that the algorithm takes into account.

Here’s how Crystal works: When a user installs the Gmail plugin, she can use it for free for three weeks (after that, it costs $19 per month). It adds a new button in her composition window. Clicking it brings up a profile of the person to whom she’s composing an email, and offers suggestions for how to consider his or her personality when they’re communicating.


About 50,000 people have used the invite-only site, according to D’Agostino. Though he started Crystal with the idea that it would be a management tool, people have emailed him to say they’ve used it to help them sell, recruit, and even date better. He says one user, a non-native English speaker, even said that it was helping him overcome the subtleties in the language.

After a couple of weeks with Crystal loaded in my inbox, though, it hasn’t meaningfully impacted my communication.

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When I’m emailing my book agent, it tells me that I “need to pique Alia’s curiosity quickly and give them a logical reason to trust your words.” I’m informed that a PR person, meanwhile, “will respond much better to exciting emotional appeals than detailed, formal requests, so keep it brief, casual, and use colorful language.”

But all I really want to say most of the time is something like, “Yes, 3 o’clock works.” In those cases, I can’t figure out how to make it emotionally appealing or trustworthy.

D’Agostino is not surprised. “Based on the profile that you described, I think that actually fits you pretty well,” he tells me. “Not the sociopath part. The ‘very direct’ part.”

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About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.

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