Please tell me the web personality quiz is NOT making a comeback. Maybe the popularity of these quizzes never even declined.
After rolling my eyes many many times this week, I eventually caved in. I finally took BuzzFeed’s “What City Should You Actually Live In?” quiz. In case you’re wondering, I belong in Paris. Without even a hint of irony, I had clicked through their “Which Muppet Are You?” quiz a few days ago. Bunsen Honeydew (I love anything Muppet). Because Facebook was overrun with Zimbio’s “Which Star Wars Character Are You?.” I just caved and took the quiz while writing this post.
Apparently, I’m Darth Vader.
Yes. There’s some truth to that. I feel the temptation to be seduced by the dark side of the force whenever I see these stupid quizzes.
Quizzes like this are a magazine standard. I Googled “most popular magazine quizzes”:
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Are you a good kisser? (Seventeen)
How millennial are you? (Time)
What’s his intimacy IQ? (Cosmopolitan)
What does your favorite snack food say about your personality? (Ladies Home Journal)
What is it about these quizzes, I wondered, that attracts us? Surely, nobody believes in the outcomes. It is just entertainment. So why do these quizzes amuse us?
I’ll admit that when I click through the choices on “Which Muppet Are you?”, I secretly hope I’ll get Animal or Dr. Teeth. I’d settle for Kermit or Gonzo. I’m checking to see how well my preference measures up to the results.
But why? I know these quizzes are based on nothing. I know there’s not even a kernel of truth in the result. No methodology is listed. The authors credentials are nowhere to be found. And how does one even earn the qualifications necessary to undertake an assessment of one’s “Muppet-ness?”
The entire thing is absurd.
You’d probably say I’m overthinking it. You might believe that people take these quizes just for fun. But frankly, I find it bizarre that any of us want to be analyzed by simple algorithms that divide and reduce us into a limited number of categories. Where does this desire come from?
Essentially, entertainment quizzes are diluted novelty versions of the psychological personality tests that gained popularity in the 1920s. The Rorschach Inkblot test was introduced in 1921, the same year Carl Gustav Jung wrote his famous book Psychological Types.
Carl Jung’s character typology laid the foundation for the popular Isabella Myers-Briggs’ test, developed in 1923. In Jung’s book, he named psychic functions: feeling, thinking, sensation, and intuition. And attitudes: introverted and extroverted. According to Jung, we all have a little bit of everything, but in each individual certain functions and attitudes are more dominant than in others.
Despite Jung’s original intentions, the Myers-Briggs test has, ironically, become most popular as a method for evaluating your professional aptitude and choosing strategies best suited for getting yourself ahead in the world. Jung’s theories, however, primarily aimed to help us identify a common psychic imbalance that was, in the Western World, disproportionately tilted toward a heroic, competitive, success-driven mindset. Paradoxically, his project was always to help us move away from the deterministic, definition-driven, certainty that’s implicit in any typology’s dependence on categorization.
Jung’s theories, like other typologies before and after, eventually led to a thriving industry which sells the professional personality test, used mostly to assess whether or not an applicant has the appropriate psychological disposition for a particular job.
As to be expected, the general opinion in the industrial age was that we had the achieved a heretofore unmatched level of scientific progress that guaranteed efficiency, accuracy, and precision. Never mind that these tests are hardly different from the typological categorization that was already popular in the ancient world. Hippocrates described four basic human temperaments, called “humors.” Plato divided us into philosophers, guardians, artisans, and scientists.
In 1935, Leopold Szondi created a non-verbal personality test called the “Szondi Test.” His was based on Freud’s drive theory. But by the late 1950s he may have been disillusioned with psychometrics. He said, “in the last decades, the specifically psychological thinking has been almost completely suppressed and removed, and replaced by a statistical thinking. Precisely here we see the cancer of testology and testomania of today.”
Testomania is right. Consumers love personality quizzes. At the time of this writing, Buzzfeed’s “What City” test had already been viewed over 14 Million times in 2 days. Google reports 135,000 monthly queries for “Myers-Briggs” and 301,000 monthly queries for “personality test.”
Apparently, we enjoy being categorized.
Still, I’m confused.
Simultaneously, my Facebook feed is saturated in personality quizzes and also links to snarky opinion posts about Google’s $3.2 Billion acquisition of Nest. At first these two things seem unrelated, but on closer inspection an inherent contradiction is revealed.
What scares us about Google (and the NSA, for that matter) is the big-brother-like way a connected world–an internet of things–uses algorithms to file us into categories that allow targeted advertising, profiling, and surveillance.
Why is it that when it comes to novelty quizzes we enjoy being analyzed by simple algorithms that divide and reduce us into a limited number of determinate categories, but when it comes to Google and the NSA we’re terrified of the same thing? My theory is that it is a collective manifestation of a psychological function that Sigmund Freud called “displacement.”
Displacement, according to Freud, is an unconscious process through which the psyche transfers energy, ideas, and emotions away from things that cause anxiety, and toward similar things that are superficial, whimsical, and distracting.
In this case, rather than focusing on the algorithmic targeting and surveillance that is become so ordinary in our everyday lives, we distract ourselves by focusing on meaningless algorithmic categorization.
What’s more, because these novelty quizzes are so obviously inaccurate, they don’t scare us. Heck, they don’t even challenge us to be introspective.
We brush them off as “merely entertainment,” forgetting that by participating–through the act clicking–we’ve once again provided Google with a plethora of personality data that is forever stored in our file.
Jordan Shapiro is author of FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide to Maximum Euphoric Bliss. For information on his upcoming books and events click here.