What Character from Seinfeld are you: Lessons in Instrument Design on Facebook.

by

seinfeld quizI, like many, am addicted to Facebook. More so, I love Facebook quizzes and supposed personality tests. Yes, yes, I know. I’m a skeptic, as well as a student and teacher of psychological science; I shouldn’t spend my valuable time on something I know to be utter nonsense. But, truthfully, recently it’s all about examining the thinking behind it, and what their popularity reveals about human nature.

About a month ago I was taking one of the more interesting quizzes: “What Character from Seinfeld Are You?” (see above). I thought about the question, “If you were a diary product, you’d be…” A) Cheese B) Yogurt C) Sour Cream or D) Milk. Of course I immediately thought, “I’m totally yogurt”, but then spent a considerable amount of time asking myself why I thought I was yogurt, and more so, why whoever designed this test asked this question and how it would ultimately result in my personality being like Jerry Seinfeld’s (which was my result).

Formal (psychological) personality testing goes back about a hundred years. Dr. Robert Woodworth, an influential, early psychologist, developed the first widely used personality test during the First World War in a joint effort with the United States Army. This test was designed to identify those military recruits who might be susceptible to stress in combat, thus producing behavioral instability commonly referred to as ‘shell shock’. The decades that followed saw a growing interest in the development and usage thereof tests to categorize people into different personality types, including the Rorschach inkblot test, the Myers-Briggs Type indicator and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). While such tests were initially designed for clinical purposes (identifying/diagnosing pathologies), some tests were also used in mainstream, everyday and non-scientific settings.

As America marched forward into the pop psychology heyday of the 1960s, these instruments began to see great criticism for being too restrictive, static and not capturing that which is the immeasurable human spirit. More so, for their misuse in hiring practices. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century when the measurement of beliefs, emotions, and other variables contributing to one’s overall ‘personality’ would once more appear as holding some potential, only this time being informed by work in cognition and behavior.

The measurement of behavior alone is a rather tricky terrain, and that is at least moderately observable. To understand one’s personality, we would first need to agree that there are such things as a personality categories [which I don’t believe psychology, even cognitive psych, has managed to do] and then devise some way of eliciting the nature of such types, presumably through subjective information participants would volunteer. The instrument would also have to reliably measure what it claims to, if we are to presume it is measuring some static construct, and with an ability to make testable predictions. Finally, we’d have to in some way demonstrate that that ‘thing’ the instrument claims to measure is in fact what it is measuring, and hopefully is the very same construct that we have defined in operational terms.

These questions concern two areas in instrument design and development; validity and reliability. Test validity, refers to degree to which an instrument measures what is claims to measure. Reliability is a measure of how consistently a test can measure that same construct. So, if I say I am measuring if a person is depressed with a survey (or questionnaire), I would need to show that the instrument can make distinctions between depression and other affective disorders with similar presentation of symptoms, like anxiety or bipolar disorders, as one test of its validity. I would also need to show that it can repeat the same measure consistently over time, and accurately predict any related outcomes as some tests of it reliability.

greek goddess

So, with this in mind let us examine the question I mentioned in the beginning. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter why I chose yogurt, a well designed instrument with good test items should measure what’s underneath my answer. Any questionnaire holds potential for social desirability bias; people don’t always respond to surveys completely objectively and will often choose responses that they perceive as being more acceptable or project images of themselves that they find more appealing. Take the example below.

social desirability example

To some, answering “How wise I am” would be ideal, for others “How beautiful I am”. In answering a question like this a person is not necessarily accurately answering the question, but potentially revealing what they value. When I chose yogurt, I was doing the same thing, if ultimately in a much less obvious way.

At any rate, you certainly cannot discern the construct of concern, so why I found yogurt appealing is not a sufficient premise on which to conclude that I am most like Jerry. More so, I’ve found that re-doing a quiz and changing just one answer would lead to a wildly different result. I once took a quiz to determine which Absolutely Fabulous character I was most like; I initially got Eddy. I didn’t like the result, so I reloaded the page and changed just one answer. My new result was Saffron. This does not sound altogether that consistent or stable. More so, it reveals why these tests are wrought with problems; we sift through them to find what we ultimately wanted to find all along. I knew I was way more like Saffy then Eddy, so I made it so.

Then there is also the instrument design itself. I myself put together such a quiz, “How well do you know Lisa Bauer”. After a few of my friends attempted it I saw an immediate flaw in my design, my own boyfriend failed miserably. The items I had assembled actually had little to do with me, and more to do with whether or not my friends would understand esoteric references to 1970s & 80s horror movies.

lisa bauer quiz question

In the end, I hope nobody really believes that a Facebook quiz can diagnose their mental disorder or measure how likely they are to go to jail. It’s difficult at best, but more likely highly improbable that supposedly real instruments designed by trained psychometrists or psychologists could gather such data. But I’m not proposing that, at least I don’t think. What I am proposing is that the appeal of answering a few multiple questions to learn insights into your personality is not a new social phenomenon. It is seeing a peak in popularity through the internet in general and more specifically social networking applications making them easy to assemble and distribute. We can equate the appeal to that of astrology, that they are ways that we can prove and measure that we are what we most want to believe; just like Jerry Seinfeld.

Advertisements

Tags: , ,

3 Responses to “What Character from Seinfeld are you: Lessons in Instrument Design on Facebook.”

  1. Doron Says:

    It behooves the skeptic to question what is exactly the motivation behind the quiz facility itself on facebook, rather then just the random quiz.

    In the Art form that is hacking (or maybe its a science similar to psychological science) there is a well established practice usually referred to as “social engineering” i.e a method for manipulating people into performing actions or divulging confidential information without their direct knowledge.

    the crafting of the quiz on facebook isn’t geared towards gaining any relevant information from its target group and their simplistic answers to the quiz. It is rather the participants data that the designer is after.

    when you take the “What (insert popular movie title) character are you?”
    you actually reveal far more information about yourself then the mere answer you pick. what you did is give consent to quiz designer to harvest all your profile information.

    A nice quiz to take by the ACLU here – http://apps.facebook.com/aclunc_privacy_quiz/

  2. Rochelle Says:

    Can personality shift over time? I don’t feel I am the same person I was ten years ago (I was yogurt; now I’m sour cream). If personalities are constantly evolving and adapting to surroundings, I think it would be hard to create a reliable personality test?

  3. Jonam Says:

    Check the science quizzes in
    http://www.sciencescore.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: