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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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."