Friday, April 4, 2014

Why Do We Take Personality Tests?

I often get questions from friends and family that they would like answered in a post. This month, my post is inspired by a question from my grandmother. Kudos to my grandma for asking a question about a popular trend on the internet!

Personality tests
Personality tests are not new, but they have recently skyrocketed in popularity on the internet. This week, Buzzfeed published 15 such tests in one 24-hour period. It seems every day on my Facebook news feed, someone has posted new results from one of these quizzes. Online personality tests have expanded beyond the traditional format of telling us certain traits we possess, although those do still exist (try here and here). Now, there are also tests that give us information about ourselves by comparing us to people or characters we know (“Which pop star should you party with?” or “Which children’s book character are you?”) and by comparing specific behaviors or knowledge to others’ (“How many classic horror films have you seen?” or “How well do you know ‘90s R&B lyrics?”).

Regardless of which type of personality test you prefer (I’m not sure that all of these can be considered tests of personality, but we’ll stick with that label for now), these tests have two things in common: they ask us questions about ourselves, and then they tell us about ourselves. But aren’t we the experts on ourselves? Why should we need to take these tests to figure out who we are? Though it seems that the clues to our personality simply lie within us, below I outline three reasons we might be motivated to take personality tests anyway. 

1. They help us achieve an identity. Adolescents and young adults especially strive to create and achieve a coherent identity. We look for cues from others and within ourselves to form a view of ourselves that seems stable and consistent. Clear identities help us navigate the world, guide our own behaviors, and make predictions about what we will and won’t like. Personality tests may give us information we feel is useful or we deem more accurate than knowledge obtained through introspection in forming views about ourselves.

In addition, when we have an identity goal for ourselves (i.e., a goal to have a certain identity, such as athlete or feminist) we may use personality tests to help us feel we have attained that goal. Research on identity goals suggests we can engage in a variety of activities to claim that we have attained our goals, such as acquiring skills relevant to the identity or describing ourselves in ways consistent with the identity. Taking personality tests may be one way to elicit descriptive information consistent with the identity we want to have (e.g., see this Athlete Mental Skills Profile which tells you whether you have the mental skills required of an athlete). Furthermore, we may follow up on personality tests by posting the results to our friends online. Having this information socially recognized may lead to an even greater sense that we have successfully attained our identity goal.

2. We like getting feedback that confirms our views of ourselves. The results of personality tests aren’t usually that deep or insightful but somehow that doesn’t stop us from taking them. This is likely because it is the process of gaining information that we already know that we enjoy. Psychologists have learned that people prefer to receive feedback that confirms their identity than feedback that doesn’t. By choosing a personality test I want to take and carefully selecting my answers, I can usually get the computer to give me feedback about myself that matches up with what I already think about myself. Getting this feedback feels good and helps me re-affirm my identity.

Consistent with the finding that we like getting feedback that aligns with our self-views, we also like it when other people see us as we see ourselves. Knowing that we are perceived in a way that matches what we think about ourselves implies that our interactions with others will be predictable and manageable. When we get a result from a personality test that aligns with our own self-view, we probably feel good that we are being recognized for who we are (or at least who we think we are). Yes, we are being recognized by a computer, but this is a computer-administered test that was designed by a human. Presumably a human would come up with the same perception of us based on the same information.

Interestingly, work on the tendency to self-verify, or to seek out information that aligns with our self-views, suggests that people want others to see them as they see themselves, even with respect to negative traits. In other words, if I feel I am anxious, then I want others to see me as anxious, even though that makes their overall evaluation of me more negative. Indeed, personality tests do this, too. It’s not always positive information they provide about us; sometimes they let us know what our flaws are, as well.

3. They help justify our behavior. When we think our behavior is less than ideal, it may ease our conscience to think that our actions are due to certain traits we possess. While we do frequently cite the situation as a reason for our own shortcomings (e.g., thinking I failed a test because the test itself was insanely difficult or my teacher is not very skilled), people can also cite their personalities as excuses for certain behaviors. If we believe personality quizzes are giving us valid information about ourselves, we may just be obtaining more excuses for harmful or questionable behaviors that we do not want to control.

For example, in one of my high school classes, we all took personality tests which were supposed to help us learn more about ourselves and how we interact with others. All I can really remember these personality tests doing was licensing people to engage in troublesome behaviors. We were 17, and not surprisingly, the tests were telling lots of us that we were impulsive, spontaneous, and liked to take risks. Great! This provided excuses for driving too fast, cutting class on a whim, and underage drinking. I remember people citing these personality traits as justification for their behavior, with the idea being that they couldn’t help who they were.

As a warning, this is particularly problematic as many personality tests “reveal” your personality by asking how you respond to different situations. They then use these behaviors to tell you something about your “real” personality. Excusing a behavior like drinking too much because you have the trait of being impulsive is akin to excusing the same behavior because you drank too much the previous week. The reasoning is flawed. Therefore, I urge you not to assume personality tests are telling you something insightful about yourself that cannot be changed!

These are just three reasons I propose for why people take personality tests. Of course, we take them for other reasons as well. Sometimes we want to compare ourselves to our friends, and other times we just want to feel closer and more similar to the celebrities or movie/TV/book characters we adore. If you've been wondering why you keep clicking on those personality test links, hopefully this post shed some insight into your behavior. If not, you may have to keep taking tests to figure out who you really are!

We'd love to hear your thoughts on reasons why people take personality tests in the comments!


Gollwitzer, P. M., & Kirchhof, O. (1998). The Willful Pursuit of Identity J. Heckhausen & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Life-span perspectives on motivation and control., 389-423.

Swann, W. B. (2012). Self-verification theory In P. Van Lang, A. Kruglanski, & E.T. Higgins (Eds.) Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology,, 23-42.

1 comment:

  1. They're a form of entertainment for me, at least. I don't take them seriously. It's interesting to see the evaluation my responses generate and if any of it seems accurate, out in left field, or is more like a horoscope in that it could probably apply to almost anyone.

    I often think the choices for a question aren't specific enough. For example, I notice a lot of questions meant to either directly or indirectly determine whether someone is a cat or dog person. I'm neither, but I rarely see a choice that would let me indicate that. Or there will be a question about what alcoholic drink you prefer. I don't like the taste of alcohol in general, plus it wreaks havoc with my blood sugar, so I don't drink. There is almost never a choice that includes a non-alcoholic drink.

    I've also noticed by taking a test multiple times and varying my answers that sometimes, on certain tests, my results seem to hinge on how I answer one particular question. I can answer all of the other questions completely different each time through, but as long as I answer one particular question the same every time, I'll always get the same result.