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pigeonholing personalities.

So, this self-test meme. We've all seen people ranting about them, we've even probably been getting a bit sick of them ourselves. Yet they're still so damn compelling.

Why? Why does everyone seem to have this need to find out what some random person thinks they are like based on a few multiple-choice questions? Why are we so pleased when we get an answer we like, or the same answer as a friend, and so annoyed when we get something that doesn't seem to fit? Is it related to the ever-expanding morass of self-help books in the bookstores, and the ever-present quizzes in women's magazines? Does it come down to some basic psychological drive? It might...

Humans, as social creatures, do seem to have a need to be able to label each other - parent, child, teacher, coworker, priest, politician, janitor. It provides a convenient way to encapsulate and retrieve information. It's much easier to think of a person as 'the janitor' than 'the person who cleans up the office after everyone's gone home, who's spanish, has a cute smile, and a faraway look in her eyes'.

This makes sense for people we don't know well, or people we don't interact with often - it's an efficient, if error-prone, way to store information about them. But why do we also delight in doing it to ourselves, and to those we are close to? I think it may be because it helps us fit ourselves (and our friends) into the larger puzzle of society. We do have a fairly hard-wired 'us and them' mentality that makes us seek out people like ourselves. If I'm a brown dragon, then my most comfortable place in society is doing brown-dragonish sorts of things, and interacting with other brown dragons.

I've always liked dissecting my own brain - figuring out why I think things, how my thought and emotional processes work. It's the biggest, most complicated jigsaw puzzle I've ever seen, it's right here whenever I feel like working on it, and gives instant feedback. Similarly for those of my friends. I've got my own system for 'personality pigeonholing' people (which I'll post about later). I have actually gained some insight into my own personality through it, in the same way I learn more about myself by reading books on ADD. It doesn't tell me qualities of my personality that I don't already know, but it reveals underlying reasons and larger patterns that I might not have seen before.

So it comes down to a basic drive to put labels to things, as an efficient means of information management, and a way to link yourself to the larger world in some meaningful way. It's also, in essence, a shortcut - our brains are lazy, and if we see a way to get somewhere without having to think as much about it we'll take it.

(Btw - if you made it through this, congratulations :). I'd like to put some version of this on my web page with my other writing, so questions/comments/suggestions of any sort are encouraged.)


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 27th, 2002 08:35 am (UTC)
I find the tests interesting because they show me how other people pick categories and labels. I like dissecting my own brain, but I think I know my brain well enough that even the long, "official", personality tests (like Myers-Briggs) won't tell me anything I didn't know. So the tests don't tell me anything about me, but they do provide a datapoint on how others might see me. (It's not a self-consciousness thing, just an "ooh, look how that person categorizes things. that's wacky!" sort of thing.)
Feb. 27th, 2002 08:52 am (UTC)
well I'm one of the ones who rants and hates the damned things. they really are mostly annoying and meaningless. why did I take the dragon test? because that one *does* mean something to me. I spend years of my life reading those books, they became a part of me. I wanted to *be* a dragonrider, I wanted to *be* a dragon. I think that if my friends took a similar approach to the tests then I wouldn't be so annoyed with them, but when someone tells me this over 25 different entries with 25 different annoying little pictures it *really* loses meaningfulness. (and *I* understood pixel's point, though the 2nd person who responded seems to have completely failed to). The tests are stupid and frivolous and I rate someone a little bit more frivolous each time they take one. Want to be seen as non-frivolous? Take fewer. That doesn't mean take none - just take the ones that have relevance. (that's a general comment, and not specifically directed at you. you don't take many. I don't think you are frivolous).
Feb. 27th, 2002 09:02 am (UTC)
off the deep end...
I think that, as you said, it is a convienient, if error-prone way of storing information about people. As with any compression, it is possible that some information may be lost.

Or, if you'd like to think of it in terms of object-oriented, it is easy to think of someone as class "Janitor" than actually dealing with their specific sub-class. It just means that you are subject to expecting the stereotypes inherent in the base class. When you ask for the color of their overalls, they may have overidden that method and given you an error, because they wear street clothes.

Think about shy-ness. I know many people who are shy in certain situations, especially meeting new people, but are extremely outgoing with older friends. This surprises me often when I find this out, because my brain had stored them as "shy".

Well, anyway -- that's a few disconnected thoughts from someone who hasn't got out of bed yet and hasn't taken their adderall...
Feb. 27th, 2002 11:37 am (UTC)
Re: off the deep end...
janitor, as opposed to a sub-class of janitors? it's still a category. I think the contrast here is of the difference between being part of a category and being an individual. This is a big thing in archaeology at the moment. In the early days, it was all about fulfilling your socially determined role, until someone (i forget who, KURSES! [/mojo jojo]) recognized the concept of individual agency. Yes you may identify with certain roles, but a person is also a (and i think this is a stupid term but its what they seem to use) knowlegeable actor, which means that you are a unique representation of the role, in spite of the fact that you are conformin to a role. Humans are aware of the fact that they fit into categories.
Feb. 27th, 2002 10:15 am (UTC)
There's a dragonriders test? Where? :)

Oh, and that's very nice thoughts, Heather - I liked reading that.
Feb. 27th, 2002 10:43 am (UTC)
Well, I know I'm a really big offender on this one. And to be nice to people who hate them, I've started putting them behind lj-cut tags.

But I mainly do them because I think they're fun. It's nifty to see what different answers are out there. It's interesting to find out if how I interpret a particular aspect to my personality is the same way other people would.

Maybe you're right about seeing how we fit into the groups we're in. I never really thought of it that way before. If I am taking them for some psychological reason (instead of my simple addiction to habits), it's probably to get a better grasp on what other people think of the way I act and think, seeing as that's always been my personal social hang-up. Not so much wanting to be labelled as it is wanting to know what others might label me, I'd say.

But I like to think that they're just for fun.
Feb. 27th, 2002 08:01 pm (UTC)
(apologies to anybody who dislikes this song, but it's the first thing that popped into my mind when I read your post...)

I'm a bitch, I'm a lover
I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint
I do not feel ashamed
Feb. 27th, 2002 09:46 pm (UTC)
I think an important feature of these tests is that we know they aren't accurate instruments. I don't see people using them seriously as tools to take away information from, information about how they or others might best be abstracted into a label. Will a surprising test result convince me to change my mind? (But maybe some people do gain insight from them.)

I've got a no-lose situation: if the test result agrees with my image of myself, I'm pleased. If it doesn't, well, it can't be taken seriously anyway. (But maybe I can tweak some answers. Or if I post the result, somebody will maybe say "yeah, that is so not you.") It's gratifying to have your idea of yourself confirmed, at least the parts that don't suck (and most tests don't have options for "pathetic sheepfucking maggot"). I think this is the way most people use the newspaper horoscope, too: confirmation rather than surprises.

I don't mean to trash test-taking. It's a game we play with ourselves, and we know it.
Feb. 28th, 2002 01:24 am (UTC)
I like this...
A while ago I started applying D&D logic to labelling people. For a while I'd reduced everyone I met to "Player, NPC, and Wandering Monster" sadly it began to work all to well...
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )


firesea: self-portrait
Heather Keith Freeman
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