You are what you type

Why do people love taking personality tests online?

By Pamela Licalzi O'Connell
Published April 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Hello, I'm Pam and I'm an Idealist: NF (variant Teacher: ENFJ). My medieval persona is Dreamer-Minstrel, I'm right in the middle between a Type A and Type B personality and, for you enneagram folks, I'm a Reformer in the rational-idealist school. In terms of Values and Lifestyles, apparently I'm Actualized and Fulfilled. Ansir For One reveals me to be a well-poured cocktail of the Visionary, Scintillator and Idealist styles. And my Life Color is a nice deep Red (Fire-Earth quadrant) -- although Insight insists on Blue. I've got to work on my tints.

What else do you need to know about me -- other than that I've been spending far too many hours taking online personality tests?

Such tests have been a fad for some time, probably starting with the infamous "Purity" tests that became a Web hit after being popular on college campuses for at least a decade. To be precise, I'm talking about free, multiple-choice personality tests that provide results directly online and often don't take more than 15 minutes or so to complete. Dozens now exist on the Web -- more if you count the numerous parodies and corporate knockoffs.

Anyone who grew up addicted to the Cosmo quiz and has some free time can get a few kicks out of the exercise. Some may well find these tests useful -- even comforting -- in a generic sort of way (personality "typing," by definition, places you within an identifiably large group).

The most popular test -- numbers aren't easy to come by -- appears to be the Keirsey Temperament Sorter. David Mark Keirsey developed the site and is the son of psychologist David W. Keirsey, who penned the 70-question test for his 1984 book "Please Understand Me." He says nearly 3 million people have taken it online in the last year and a half. Tabulated results from about 540,000 of those can be found on the site.

While many people say they take the Keirsey test as a lark, the four temperaments and 16 "variants" that form its categorization system are popping up all around the Net. One can now find routine mentions of Keirsey temperament results in online risumis and occasionally in e-mail signature files. Lengthy discussions about members' "types" have filled newsgroups as varied as alt.gothic, and (unsurprisingly) A college professor is collecting Keirsey results from anyone with a personal Web site; and you can find pages devoted to cataloging the temperaments of online diarists and fantasy-game aficionados, among others.

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Obviously, simple accessibility is the primary reason Keirsey's and similar tests are so popular online. David Mark Keirsey cites, in particular, the Web's openness to "ideas not from the mainstream academic or commercial institutions" (personality tests not offered by a practitioner in a face-to-face setting are still frowned on by the psychological establishment). Those on the Web, as in "real life," may also be drawn to the idea of "belonging" to an identifiable type or a group and the feeling of affirmation that inspires.

But there could be more to why personality tests hold such a strong appeal for Net users: They may help fill a void at the heart of online communication. According to Marlene Maheu, a clinical psychologist with a strong interest in health issues online who is also publisher of the Web magazine Self-Help & Psychology, "People online are looking for quick and easy answers, for abbreviated-type interaction." We've all felt the need for some common shorthand for describing ourselves to virtual friends, and Keirsey results are more fun to share than whether one is, say, for or against Microsoft -- and arguably more enlightening.

Most such tests are amusing and typically harmless -- though you may want to avoid those that require a name and address (as does the Church of Scientology's tortuous 200-question version). Still, Maheu, who sits on the American Psychological Association's professional practice standards committee, decries online tests' lack of accountability. "What if a person gets depressed or decides to change jobs as a result of taking one of them?" she asks.

Kathryn, who collected Keirsey results on (and who, like most of that newsgroup's participants, posts using only her first name), says that, judging by the newsgroup member's reactions, "A majority of them were taking the Sorter for fun, but there were some who really analyzed the results and applied it to themselves. Some said things like, 'Well, I took the test last year and was an X; then when I took it today I was a Y.' People didn't know what to think about the fact that their results changed, and discredited the test, saying that they would constantly get different results depending on what kind of day they were having."

According to an article by Linda V. Berens on the site of the Temperament Research Group, the Keirsey test has an "error" rate of at least 25 percent, which means that in cases where the test is administered by a practitioner "and a feedback session is conducted ... the instrument results do not match the confirmed and/or observed type about 25 percent of the time." A one-in-four failure rate seems high. Yet, in the same article, Berens defends the Keirsey temperament theory as "reflecting patterns of behavior that have been described by many great thinkers for over 25 centuries."

The Keirsey Sorter and a test with which it is often associated, the similar but much longer Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (a popular psychometric tool used mostly by corporations but that cannot be taken online), are both based, at least in part, on Carl Jung's psychological type theory of personality. Jung classified people according to their preferred modes of thinking and perceiving, relying heavily on the concept of opposition. He maintained that polarity is the source of psychic energy (the Keirsey and MBTI tests force you to choose between two answers in every instance). Jung coined the terms extrovert and introvert to refer to what he considered the central opposing characteristics of personality.

Jung's type theory holds a lot of appeal and has seeped into our modern consciousness. While critics may see the Keirsey test as a form of "psychological Trivial Pursuit," others may find it makes accessible to the common Web surfer theories of temperament that touch on apparently universal truths. Just don't take the results too, well, personally. Even the Keirsey site describes the Sorter as, at best, "a preliminary and rough indicator of personality."

Wally Glenn, a self-described test junkie who devotes a portion of his home page to listing (mostly parodic) online personality measurements, is still waiting for his ideal test: "One that comes back with an answer like, 'You have a tendency to take online personality tests.'"

Pamela Licalzi O'Connell

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