Alex is a cognitive psychologist who primarily studies judgment and decision making. Recently, in his collaboration with Dr. Stein, he has began to study beliefs and decisions associated with pseudoscientific topics, such as anti-science dispositions and subpar personality assessments. He received his PhD from University of California, Santa Barbara and has been at Eureka for two years.
We might know that personality quizzes that reveal your true Harry Potter house you belong to are silly, but our search for meaning in our “hidden” personalities often is not.
My colleague Alex Swan and I really wanted to know: where do people think this “deep” meaning comes from? A handful of studies we conducted make the case that the more personality questions are ambiguous or vague, the more people think those questions get at “hidden”, revealing insights.
We found this out by having people rate their perceptions of the difficulty and depth of questions from a popular yet scientifically flimsy personality “type” assessment, as well as a more valid assessment, the Big Five. Contrasting to their actual scientific status, the “type” assessment was seen as more difficult and “deeper’ than the Big Five.
We experimented a bit after that, mimicking Buzzfeed personality quizzes that have questions that have nothing to do with personality. What’s a preference for green vs. blue got to do with personality? Well, the harder we made those choices – asking about two colors at once as opposed to an easier evaluation of one color – the more people thought the questions were capable of deep revelation.
There’s an irony here – well-designed personality assessments have straightforward, easy-to-process questions with a clear relation to what they’re trying to measure. The shoddier assessments often have questions with the opposite of those qualities, yet it could be precisely the fuzziness of these questions that make these assessments feel profound. So, these intuitions about the source of deep insight could lead us to know less about ourselves, not more.