Friday, March 28, 2014
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Quizzes are catnip - tell me about me – and not just on Facebook. This week, the New York Times offered one, called “Can You Spot the Liar?” And, apparently, the biggest feature in Slate's history was the widget to Travoltafy your name! – not a quiz exactly but close enough. Mine is Bruce Granite. If you’ve ever wandered onto BuzzFeed, the reigning king of the quiz, you probably know what actor would play you in the movie version of your life. Why we take quizzes seems a little obvious but when we started taking them, not so much.
Writer Sarah Laskow tried to find out and located the birth of modern quizziness more than a century ago, in women’s magazines.
SARAH LASKOW: It was a lot about reflecting women’s life as women back at them. One of the first regular quizzes, Lynn Peril reported in The Guardian was in Ladies Home Journal, called “Making Marriage Work.” And so, I think they were, at the very least, keeping women on their idea of what it is to be a woman. It was sort of policing femininity in that way, potentially.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm. But after there was the Ladies Home Journal, there was Cosmo.
SARAH LASKOW: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cosmo seemed to refine its own particular kind of quiz that’s had an impact on everything that followed.
SARAH LASKOW: It's like one of the first things you turn to when you buy a Cosmopolitan Magazine. And because they couldn't find the very first quiz ever in the media, I thought, well, why not look at Cosmo, because they've defined the quiz for so long. And I mean even there, you didn't really start seeing them regularly until after Helen Gurley Brown took over. And then around like 1966, you could see Cosmopolitan testing out this idea, like, how can we make our readers more engaged with this material that we have in some sort of interactive way? And the quiz was one way to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The nature of the questions changed, too. I mean, from the Ladies Home Journal days of making marriage work, Helen Gurley Brown's quizzes had to do with gauging your confidence and your sexuality, and stuff like that?
SARAH LASKOW: Yeah. The first ones weren’t about sex so much. The first ones were really about your life as a woman. So one of the first ones I found was, “How to tell if you’re a good roommate?”
And the next one I found was a little bit more about judging your inner life. It was this really complicated scenario, where a wife was killed by a madman after she had cheated on her husband. And it laid out this whole drama, and you were supposed to say who was responsible for the wife’s death.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This was in Cosmo.
SARAH LASKOW: Yeah, this was in Cosmo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the way that I understand it, the wife is coming home from her affair.
SARAH LASKOW: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She's menaced by a madman on a bridge, and she has to appeal to others for help.
SARAH LASKOW: There are six characters. There is the madman, the wife, the husband and these helpers. You’re asked to say who you think was most responsible for the wife’s death, based on your sort of moral compass of blame. That says something about you as a person. And I mean, you can't help but sit and take these quizzes, so like I was taking this and I found out, you know, that I – that –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You blame the madman first and then you blame the wife.
SARAH LASKOW: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don’t you think the people who failed to help her have more blame than she does, simply for having been on the bridge, ’cause it could have happened to any passerby?
SARAH LASKOW: That’s true. I sort of thought the wife was responsible because it's important to take, you know, responsibility for your own choices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re a tough one!
SARAH LASKOW: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] But anyway that's where Cosmo went, from how do you judge yourself as a roommate to how do you judge yourself as a moral human being.
SARAH LASKOW: Yeah, another one not that long after that asked you how well do you know yourself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that the readers didn’t buy this.
SARAH LASKOW: Oh, no.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] But how do you know?
SARAH LASKOW: Well, they wrote in. People were skeptical that you really could get to know yourself just from answering a series of questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Your research suggested they were right.
SARAH LASKOW: Yeah. I mean, there is a lot of research that says that even tests that are rooted in real psychology aren’t really telling us anything about ourselves. I mean, the Myers-Briggs test is really popular in workplaces as a diagnostic tool, and psychologists don't believe that really says anything about what type of worker you’re gonna be or how you’re gonna get along with your colleagues. And there’s this really famous psychology test, the Forer effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s given to students?
SARAH LASKOW: I mean, I know a bunch of people who took it in Psych 101.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
SARAH LASKOW: You get a series of questions, just like one of these quizzes. You’re told that these are gonna tell you about who you are. The next day everyone gets a paragraph - that are the results of the test. And you get a second to read it, and the teacher will ask, okay, who thinks this describes them? And, invariably, a ton of people raise their hands, and only then is it revealed that everyone got the exact same paragraphs.
We want to believe that something can tell us about ourselves. Our brains will just tell us like, yes, that’s you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, if there is an Ur quiz or an Ur personality test, it would be the one that you describe in your piece, the Woodworth Psychoneurotic Inventory, or WPI.
SARAH LASKOW: Yeah. I think that’s widely regarded as one of the first psychology-based personality tests in the US. It was designed for the Army around World War I, to judge how well different soldiers would be able to deal with the stresses of combat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you take that one?
SARAH LASKOW: Oh yeah, of course!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s more than a hundred questions. I mean, intelligence tests, SATs, how broadly can we extrapolate about ourselves from any test?
SARAH LASKOW: Probably, you can learn something about yourself from the Woodworth Psychoneurotic Inventory that you're not gonna learn about yourself from a BuzzFeed quiz. But I think there’s always gonna be a limit to how much a series of questions can tell us about who we really are.
The reason we take these quizzes is ‘cause we want to hear what we already know about ourselves, mostly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, having taken dozens of them, do you feel that you’ve eked out any new awareness?
SARAH LASKOW: I can't say that I feel like I've really learned anything deep about myself from taking a bunch of quizzes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well then, let me ask you, does it make you uneasy to cross a bridge over a river? [LAUGHS]
SARAH LASKOW: [LAUGHS] Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you feel like jumping off when you are in a high place?
SARAH LASKOW: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: See, that is so weird. I do.
SARAH LASKOW: Oh, really?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One last question off of the Woodworth Psychoneurotic Inventory.
SARAH LASKOW: Mm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you find it difficult to pass urine in the presence of others? [LAUGHS]
SARAH LASKOW: Sometimes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
SARAH LASKOW: Oh, you’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Writer Sarah Laskow wrote, “In search of the ur-quiz” for the Columbia Journalism Review.