I have a tip for you. Those Facebook intelligence quizzes that claim “only 5% of the population will get all these answers right” are not actual intelligence quizzes. I hope you already knew that. If not, you’re welcome.
Those quizzes are either rigged, disingenuous (almost everyone can see the difference between these little colored squares) or are outright scams designed to get your personal information. Even at their best, quizzes shared on Facebook are marketing tools, either used for ad revenue, cookies, or brand engagement. They are, indeed, the ultimate clickbait.
Using Your Narcissism To Make Money
The one secret marketing companies don’t want you to know? They prey on the narcissism inherent in social media use to get clicks. A University of Michigan study shows that social media “reflects and amplifies our culture’s growing levels of narcissism” and attract individuals most in need of an ego boost. (The jury is out on whether social media is more about making a connection versus a venue for preening and self-promotion, but at least there’s a quiz to help you figure it out).
A high score on an intelligence-measuring test, for example, is one way to signal to your friends what you’ve known along: that you are very, very smart. With some tests that truly go viral, it is a way to one-up others. Take, for example, a vocabulary quiz that in June 2016 was shared more than 78,000 times and liked over 51,000 times.
As always, the results of this quiz should be taken with a grain of salt, not in this case because it is rigged but because the questions start off relatively simple then throw in some very obscure words. Thus, almost anyone choosing to take such a test will likely do well enough that he would share his results without embarrassment, but truly linguistically gifted people can have bragging rights by besting their peers.
Personal Brands Versus Joining a Tribe
Sometimes the bragging rights have to do with specialized knowledge. “Only a true Harry Potter fan,” for example, would get all the answers on this quiz. In other cases, they are much easier than promised, and sometimes, like in this quiz for nurses, they are completely rigged to give someone either 100 percent or 0 percent. Regardless, they evoke a positive dopamine rush in test takers. If not a true test of intelligence, they are at least a test of “trueness,” a belonging to a fandom or a specific group, like a reverse of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.
People want to belong to a tribe. It might be a tribe of Phish Phans or Trekkies, or it could be belonging to a profession or a generation (after all, only a ’90s kid could identify these Backstreet Boys lyrics). Publicly identifying with a tribe is a part of our social media branding. In fact, almost everything we do online is part of our branding and influences how others view us. It is more advertisement than conversation, more media than social.
We brand ourselves offline as well, but many of those things subsequently get shared online to a wider audience. Christmas cards look more like slick family brochures rather than well wishes. Birthdays have to have themes and the decorations shouldn’t be from Party City. Weddings now have hashtags. We Pinterest our lives then replay every aspect online. In fact, a 2013 “Today” show survey of 7,000 U.S. mothers revealed that 42 percent have “Pinterest stress” about being insufficiently crafty.
Humans Search for Meaning
Part of personal branding is, quite simply, telling people who we are. Social media has enabled us to do so on an ever-increasing scale. A major appeal of early sites such as Friendster, Myspace, and the original Facebook was the ability to proclaim to the world your favorite bands, books, and quotes. Even without a quiz to fuel it, think about how many people shared a viral article about “Xennials,” a term referring to a possible “microgeneration” of individuals born between 1979 and 1983. (There also is a quiz to see if you’re a Xennial.)
Part of the reason the term caught fire was that Xennials like myself are in their mid to late ’30s and therefore in the perfect position to bring their ideas and humor into the mainstream (think the jokes and terminology in “Frozen,” which are perfectly geared to appeal to a mid-30s parent). A discussion of a Baby Boomer/Generation X microgeneration likely would not have the same breadth of discussion in mainstream media.
But a slightly more pejorative reason for the “Xennial” obsession is that it panders to the navel-gazing to which millennials (and Xennials) are prone. Hence the abundance of articles (and quizzes of course) shared on social media about introversion, starting with a veritable classic, The Atlantic’s 2003 “Caring for your Introvert,” or the recent trend du jour of identifying yourself as a particular Myers-Briggs type. When Heidi Preibe’s “The Definition of Hell for each Myers-Briggs Personality Type” went viral in May 2015, Google searches for the term skyrocketed, presumably also with an influx of individuals taking and retaking Myers-Briggs quizzes.
As for the Xennials, Sarah Stankorb made up the term in 2014 for GOOD Magazine. This microgeneration had previously been termed Generation Catalano (in 2011 by Doree Shafir) and later in 2015 by Anna Garvey as the Oregon Trail Generation.
So why did the popularity of the term explode in 2017—three years later? One reason seems to be that the term has been newly misattributed to an Australian professor named Dan Woodman and recent articles therefore incorrectly make it seem as if this is an official microgeneration blessed by experts. Millennials are obsessed with identifying themselves, but they also want the weight of science behind it, just as they do when they read about the intricacies of Myers-Briggs and Jungian typologies or delve into the neurological patterns of introverts.
This obsession lends itself to personality quizzes, but not just weighty scientific ones. After all, the most popular quizzes shared in Facebook are lighthearted inconsequential fare, such as BuzzFeed’s “What City Should You Actually Live In?” (20 million contemporary views) and “Which State Do You Actually Belong In?” (41.4 million contemporary views).
BuzzFeed quizzes are written so the results feel personal and you can relate to them. “The answers genuinely correspond to the results.” Like Cosmo magazine quizzes of old, BuzzFeed writes the results first, putting people into buckets, then writes corresponding questions and answers.
Don’t Just Blame the Millennials
The example of old Cosmo quizzes demonstrates that this, of course, isn’t just a millennial thing. Personality tests, including Rorscharch’s inkblots and Woodworth’s Personal Data Sheet, came to the fore in the early twentieth century and show we want to quantify the human condition. Nowadays when we take personality tests, we get feedback that confirms our views of ourselves and help justify our behavior. What’s new, however, is that now part of the point is to share the results. By doing so, we not only tell people who we are but confirm it to ourselves.
Our society is self-absorbed, but social media isn’t the cause, and instead a symptom of something that arose in the 1980s. Narcissistic Facebook users are more likely to be middle-aged adults who use social media to gain approval from people in their existing social circles (whereas narcissistic young adults take to the more public arena of Twitter and broadcast their views opinions on an attempt to become thought leaders).
But it’s “the declaration of self, rather than just being” that theorists say represent a societal evolution. Words are not the only declaration; so are the choices we make public, such as our Amazon wishes or our streaming music playlists
Marketers know this. There are articles on “leveraging the social media ego” to get data on customer targets. Individuals want to project a self-image, and by doing so online they basically hand companies valuable information. We do so through our acquisition of things and our loyalty to brands, both which signify “who we are.”
All of this leads to interactive content marketing strategy. Brands know they need to make users feel as if they are gaining some insight into themselves and their lives, and that people want a personal and engaging conversation with their interactive content. Hence the proliferation of quizzes, almost all of which are some sort of marketing tool.
In the end, that’s all just good business and salesmanship. Knowing the psychology of quizzes and how that benefits marketers won’t stop us from taking them. The one thing for us quiz-happy folk to be aware of, though, are quizzes that try to take your personal information and sell it to others. Experts recommend staying away from any quiz that requires access to your Facebook profile to generate a word cloud, or your most popular statuses, or your “soulmate” from your friends list. When we let our ego lead the way, it is best to protect ourselves from being scammed.