Mind & Body

This New Personality Test Relies on Your Choices in a Role-Playing Game

The Internet is rife with personality tests claiming to inform participants about themselves on everything from their Myers Briggs personality type to how their pizza topping preferences will affect how many children they have. There's even a Buzzfeed quiz to determine which BuzzFeed quiz you are!

But not all quizzes are created equal. Many of these self-reporting questionnaires are plagued with problems that make the science behind them dubious at best. A newly published paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences suggests that immersing test-takers in a role-playing game may overcome some of those issues.

The Four Humors and the Five Factors

Humanity's quest for understanding stretches back to ancient times. Hippocrates first attempted to explain differences in personality, sex, and even age using the four humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Each humor corresponded with different planets, elements of Earth, and temperaments. The humors were affected by the passage of time and changing of seasons. Ancient doctors strove to keep patients' humors in balance to maintain their health.

Fast-forward thousands of years and Hippocrates' basic theory — that the human personality is comprised of several distinct components — holds up.

The Five Factor Model, which was developed in the 1980s and 1990s and is the accepted standard for personality testing today, identifies five universal personality characteristics: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experiences, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

Scientists (and employers) are interested in understanding personality because of its potential to determine someone's behavior. Often, the mechanism used to assess personality take the form of a questionnaire: In some, participants report how strongly they agree or disagree with statements like "I tend to be quiet"; in others, they choose from options for how they'd act in different situations, such as whether they'd chat up someone standing in line or look at their phone.

These methods are cheap and easy, but they're not without problems.

The first approach, in which participants report their level of agreement with broad statements about themselves, doesn't take into account that responses may differ depending on the situation. For example, while someone might say that they tend to be quiet in certain settings, they may be more outgoing in other settings that aren't captured by the questionnaire. A person's answers could even be influenced by how they're feeling that day.

In the multiple-choice format, participants may fake their answers to go with whatever they believe to be more socially acceptable or desirable. So someone who doesn't want to be perceived as rude or antisocial might say they would chat up the next person in line when in reality, they would definitely have their eyes glued to their phone.

Some people tend to answer in the extreme too often (strongly agreeing or disagreeing with every statement), while others avoid the extremes and only answer in the middle. Some people don't actually care about the questionnaire they're filling out, especially if it's a school or work requirement, so they answer thoughtlessly. Others don't even make it through if a questionnaire is too long, difficult, or boring.

All of these issues jeopardize the accuracy of the survey's results.

Game On

Researchers at Louisiana State University believe the solution is to make personality tests less "teen magazine" and more game-like.

The team developed a roleplaying scenario in which a mythical character wakes up in an underground cave with no memory of how they got there. The goal is to reach the Earth's surface by traversing a labyrinth of tunnels. Players run into new creatures and challenges as they move throughout the tunnels and must choose between three courses of action, each of which represents a different personality factor.

The game was tested three times, twice among Redditors on the r/SampleSize subreddit and once among undergraduates.

Researchers found the game format had two major benefits: People were engaged by the game, which made them more likely to complete the entire assessment with thoughtful and honest answers. Participants were also less likely to fake answers based on social bias because the game focused on an abstract character rather than themselves.

Best of all, the personality traits determined by the players' choices in the game were moderately correlated with their personality traits on a standard personality questionnaire. Those traditional questionnaires might be imperfect, but having their results match up at least somewhat with the new game's results meant that the researchers were onto something.

The team was encouraged by its findings.

"We believe that the future of game-like personality testing has promising potential for both research and practice," the researchers said.

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Learn about the long history of personality tests in "The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing" by Merve Emre. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Steffie Drucker June 6, 2019

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