Web users go nuts over personality tests

With the soaring popularity of online identity tests, 'self-discovery' – of sorts – is now just a few clicks away.

Garit Reuble has learned a lot about himself recently. He has excellent emotional intelligence, his "inner rock star" is Beck, his social insight is average, and his perfect religion is Unitarian Universalism.

Best of all, the Seattle graphic designer was able to learn all this in just a few minutes – without uttering a single word, or moving from his desk.

Mr. Reuble derived his profile not through intimate chats, not after a Zen-like period of self-reflection, but by filling out online personality tests. And the results rang true. "Everything sounds like me," he says.

Identity-revealing quizzes are the latest Internet craze, say tech-industry experts. With thousands of free tests at one's fingertips, crossing the line between self-awareness and navel-gazing has never been easier. The tests' popularity has put a new spin on a familiar cultural debate: Are Americans obsessed with themselves?

Where the phrase "rugged individualism" defined Americans from Daniel Boone to test-pilot Chuck Yeager, Americans today are increasingly exploring cerebral and emotional frontiers.

By clicking a few multiple-choice answers, millions of Web-browsers are learning to classify themselves as "idealist," "rationalist," "hedonist," or "traditionalist" – and debate the merits of each. In a testament to the spread of pop psychology in American culture, a confession of being an "intuitive mediator" these days can draw admiring nods on the subway – especially if the listener is a "security-seeking guardian."

Entertainment and insight overlap

Leading the trend is www.emode.com, which has given feedback to over 100 million curious test-takers since its launch in 1999. The site was named "Rising Star of the Internet" at this year's prestigious Webby Awards for being the fastest-growing website of 2002. It offers over 100 exams, and bills itself as "The No. 1 Destination for Self-Discovery."

The online tests range from deeply serious ("Do I have a personality disorder?") to entertaining ("What is my Romantic Personality?") to frivolous ("What does the way I eat soup say about me?"). There are tests that take five minutes, and batteries of introspection that rival the SAT, with virtual "pages" of questions followed by pages of results.

The most popular tests are those that straddle entertainment and insight. Their growing popularity is "an assertion of identity," says David Silver, a cyberculture expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. He links the trend to a backlash against the Internet's reputation as a place where people invent, rather than reveal, identities.

"People find out who they are, and then they start forwarding e-mails to their friends to tell them about it," says Dr. Silver.

'A social activity'

Christine Whitney, a Boston publisher who confesses to having "a funny compulsion to take these sorts of things," calls the tests "a social activity to some extent.... I used to do them with groups of friends, and we'd talk through our responses as we made them, and try to get all the dirty news."

But now, the experience is more independent – and efficient: Ms. Whitney completes tests swiftly, then compares notes with a friend who has taken the same ones.

The tests also serve a social function as a type of mirror. Mark Leary, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., says most people are "trying to confirm their self-image. They want to make sure their perception of themselves is accurate."

That's the case for Mr. Reuble, the budding Beck disciple. He says with satisfaction, "I pretty much like the way I am."

But the bliss of self-discovery has its pitfalls. Many of the tests are "self-reported," with answers reflecting people's own opinions of their behavior and attitudes. That may accounts for such satisfying portrayals.

Some tests attempt to compensate for this bias, typically by asking the same question in a variety of ways, or by describing complex situations and seeking reactions.

Assessing biases

But if some tests are designed to confirm worldviews, others dissect the biases behind them: Implicit Attitudes Tests – designed by three respected academic psychologists – measure unconscious stereotypes and try to correct for the quirks of self-reports. Themes include gender and age bias – but the race bias test is most popular. The program asks users to react to a series of faces and words, then calculates whether users associate certain positive language with a certain race.

Together with 48 percent of people who've taken the test, Reuble was told that he has a "strong automatic preference for white" – compared to just 6 percent who have a strong preference for black. "I found that weird," he says, "especially since I constantly think to correct my cultural prejudices."

Tony Greenwald, one of the IAT's designers, hopes such experiences will encourage people to make that effort more often. He argues that being "aware that you have unconscious preferences" prompts people to make a "conscious effort to be nondiscriminatory."

Such advice is a feature common to many sites, fueling the hope for self-improvement: After taking an assertiveness test, Ms. Whitney was warned to avoid being aggressive. "While I've always been aware that I'm an assertive person, it made me think how my actions are perceived by others," she says.

But eager test-takers, beware: Professor Leary warns that some of the most popular tests – such as the famous Myers-Briggs battery, which divides people into 16 personality types – are not used by mainstream psychologists because "they imply that you're 'this' or you're 'that,' whereas in fact most personality traits fall on a continuous scale."

Such a fixation on "types" can be irritating, according to a Maryland factory worker who asked for anonymity. After taking an online anger test, he was told that his overall anger level is healthy. But that reassurance did little to assuage or defuse his periodic fits of rage: "The test didn't suggest what to do when I lose my temper over something mundane and go completely berserk."

Yet sites that do offer serious advice may have some serious problems of their own. One website owned by the pharmaceutical company Paxil offers a test for symptoms of social anxiety disorder, for which Paxil also sells drugs. Prof. Debra Hope, an expert in anxiety disorders at the University of Nebraska, cautions that they have "drawn the line very, very liberally" in recommending visits to healthcare professionals.

Though the questions on such sites are often similar to those asked by doctors, the difference is in the feedback – how complete and tailored the explanation of options is.

Overclassifying?

For most users, the biggest worry may be an overdose of introspection. "Although it can be beneficial to think about yourself," says Leary, "you can think about yourself too much. You can categorize yourself in ways that are unhealthy. Sometimes you're your own worst enemy."

Happily, then, one site offers a test for narcissism. "But if you're already a self-centered person," posits Reuble, "you probably don't need a test to tell you so."

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