I could sit here and tell you my last three Buzzfeed quiz results:
“Which random female celebrity are you?”
“We can tell you who you are in 12 questions.”
A spontaneous perfectionist with a surprising penchant for adventure.
“Which classic American dessert are you, based on your food choices?”
If this doesn’t tell you enough about my personality, I could supplement by adding that I used to think I was a Ravenclaw, but I was recently sorted into Slytherin — or it might be relevant that I’m a Scorpio. In terms of legitimate psychological personality assessments, I could tell you that on the Big 5, I score high on openness, high on conscientiousness, right in the middle for extraversion and agreeableness, and high on neuroticism. I could also tell you that I’m an INFJ.
You could read all of this and still not have a clue as to who I am. Yet for some reason, I believe that these things actually help to identify me in a huge world of anonymous people. I collect these personality profiles as often as I can, sharing them with my friends as if they needed to know which supporting character on Gilmore Girls I am, and for some reason, they send me their results back.
It’s easy to say that this is some form of narcissism playing itself out in harmless quizzes. My grandparents would probably tell me that it’s just my attempt at figuring out how I fit into the world as I begin to enter my twenties. These are both true, but that’s not what this article/blog post is about.
Instead, I want to look at how we use these quizzes as justification for our problems, our anxieties and our flaws, or to use more specific language, I’m interested in how we use these prescribed personality traits as a crutch for our patterns of behavior that we perceive as deviating from the norm.
We can ease into this by looking at these personality descriptors through the lens of being a Stanford student. As many of us are familiar with, there are always the questions “How did you get to Stanford?”, “What are you doing at Stanford?” and “What will you do after Stanford?”. All three of which I have rehearsed and repeated answers for: I’m a first-gen, low-income minority student with a sad backstory and good test scores. I’m majoring in English with an intended minor in psychology. I write for the Grind and MINT Magazine when I’m not filming engineering lectures for SCPD. After graduation, I plan to attend law school, practice entertainment law in Los Angeles and volunteer with domestic violence shelters in my free time.
I’ve realized that I hold onto these titles in my life to explain my academic inadequacies, especially being a first-gen, low-income minority student. It makes me feel as if I’ve worked harder than most people to get here, or that it’s okay I’m not the best academically because I went to a very average public high school in LA County, whereas some friends of mine went to prestigious private schools that send most of their students to Ivy Leagues.
Most of how I describe myself is done so in the face of my shortcomings. In a way, it’s a form of over-correction — if I’m obviously not one thing, then I really have to be the opposite thing. For example, I tell myself that I don’t need math to be successful, and that STEM fields are boring, to comfort my personal anxiety. I exaggerate my love for history and art, trying to prove that I’m worthy because I’m cultured and I have a personality. I’ve created a personality that has more to do with who I’m not than who I am.
But isn’t that what we all do? She’s definitely not a dog person, so she must be a cat person. He doesn’t like watching sports, so he must like reading books instead, to be grossly simplistic. We operate on this basis of opposites, assigning each other often heavily stereotyped personalities. It’s the simple human process of elimination, in which we figure out each other by figuring out what we’re not.
And this is the same logic that Buzzfeed quizzes operate on. Through a series of seemingly random quizzes you narrow down your personality by eliminating all the things that you don’t like or don’t relate to, until finally they give you an answer that you somehow identify with. You then share these little quiz results to your friends, you laugh, they try it out as well and you compare your results. These inconsequential results often end up affirming the versions of ourselves that we believe to be true and continue adding to this composite of how you operate. A Buzzfeed quiz tells you you’re the blunt, sassy one in your friend group that everyone knows not to mess with, and you, liking this result, accept this into your identity schema, and act in a way that proves this true. So when someone criticizes you for not letting people in, you can blame it on your independent personality.
Overall, constructing identities on a foundation of who we’re not is not a bad thing; it’s just how the mind works efficiently. However, we shouldn’t (I’m including myself in this “we”) let these identifiers be our excuse for not evolving or improving ourselves. We should never be static personalities, staying the same person for most of our lives. Let yourself change, take an art class if you’re a mechanical engineering student and try your dorm’s intramural basketball team even if you don’t do the sports thing, because why should we let ourselves be the ones to limit us?
Contact Arianna Lombard at ariannal ‘at’ stanford.edu.