I must confess that while I deeply dislike the way the Internet encourages us to pathologize each other and ourselves, the overuse (and often misuse) of terms like “emotional labor,” “dissociation,” or “sapiosexual.” refuses to label everyday phenomena, for example – I love personality tests, which basically do the same thing. In the language of personality tests, your everyday behavior and thought patterns take on spectacular special meanings; You’re not just “adventurous” or “athletic”, you are a Griffindor. You are not obsessive about love, you are anxious-clinging. You’re more than just playful and impulsive, you’re a Enneagram type 7a label I share with Joe Biden, Paris Hilton and Mozart.
A few weeks ago I met a new friend (I’m an extrovert!) who told me about an app she was obsessed with called Dimensional. Basically, you take a series of personality tests, and then the app compares you to loved ones who are also on the app: how similar you behave at work, how compatible you are in love, whether you share the same values . I downloaded it right away and then got as many friends as possible to do the same.
Like Co-Star, the hugely popular astrology app that sends its users daily tongue-in-cheek messages like “start a cult” or personal negatives like “maybe you just need a roll in the hay,” Dimensional packs a whole lot of Instagram bait. After you’re done with all the ratings – there are currently 10 of them related to things like “conflict style” and “values”; They all take about an hour to complete – Dimensional will give you “stories” or Instagram-ready slides listing your “worst love habits” or “most toxic traits”. (“Taking it personally when other people want some alone time” and “crushing on everyone” blew me to pieces.)
Its pleasant-looking UX is far from the most entertaining part of Dimensional. Once you’ve forced a friend to join, you can read an AI’s opinion of your relationship. About my best friend and I: “Rebecca not only loves being told how someone feels about her, she usually needs that kind of validation to feel valued. Mary Kate does not instinctively express gratitude or affirmation.” About another friend and I: “You are the Bonnie and Clyde of relationships. Both of you strive for independence from the world – not from each other.”
Of course, nobody but us is interested in these little insights. It’s not a personality test, and that’s exactly why they’re such a good change from traditional social media: there are no photos, no likes, no appearances for an imaginary mass of invisible strangers. Instead of acting as brands and media companies and megaphones, we reflect on our own humanity – and then, yes, upload that data to the cloud.
We’ve endured more than a decade of discourse and academic research about whether someone is truly “themselves” online, and we’re now at a stage where a number of social media platforms are branding themselves as “anti- Instagram” apps: no self-promotion, no advertising, no chance of fame. Of them all – Dispo, Poparazzi, BeReal – only the latter seems to have transcended fad status, although it is still in its infancy in popularity.
Dimensional doesn’t have many similarities with these apps. For one, the entire premise of Dimensional rests on an essentially once-in-a-lifetime experience: you take the quizzes, wait for your friends to answer them, and then compare. There’s a limit to how much time you spend there, preventing it from attracting the kind of venture capital that helped early social media startups get off the ground, but requires growth at all costs — more users, more engagement, more ad dollars. Paradoxically, that’s exactly what makes it so enjoyable to use: you can get burned out from the endless churn of your TikTok or Twitter feeds, but using Dimensional is more like reading an article about yourself using the play lead role.
Personality tests have always been a bit cheesy and a bit derided, and probably for good reason. As my colleague Constance Grady has noted, the most famous, Myers-Briggs, revolves around dualities that don’t actually exist and uses outdated Jungian theories to justify their scientific claims. They satisfy people’s instinct for tribalism: being in a group makes us feel more comfortable. Also, we will begin to identify with this group no matter what it actually is, a phenomenon known as the Barnum Effect. We have humans as early as 400 BC. Typed when Hippocrates believed that every human being belongs to one of the four humors. The more modern roots of the personality quiz lie in women’s magazines, which began to feature many more front-of-book games and puzzles after World War I. In the 2010s, an entire venture-backed media company relied on addictive quizzes to fuel its growth.
Personality tests take on a more complicated meaning in the age of big data. If you’re a person high in “Neuroticism” on your Big Five personality chart, you’re likely seeing an app like Dimensional as a field day for privacy abuse. This is a legitimate concern: In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, data firm Cambridge Analytica used widely used personality tests to collect data on 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge. With access to more intimate details than demographics or hobbies — what makes someone anxious, what they’re afraid of, how they form relationships — it’s not hard to imagine a worst-case scenario.
But honestly, as much as I care about such security and privacy breaches, it’s difficult for me to care that much about the information I’ve given Dimensional, which compares to what I’ve given Google or Apple, feels like a handout Facebook or Twitter or TikTok or my period tracker, all of whom would probably willingly turn everything over to the police or the state if asked nicely. In a 2020 Reddit AMA, Dimensional’s founders explained that they had no plans to monetize personal advertising at the time, “because we’re dealing with people’s personal data and it doesn’t really align with our purpose to improve people’s lives through ourselves/mutual awareness” and that “for security reasons we store psychometric data in a different database than login data”. (I’ve tried to contact Dimensional’s co-founders, Saeid Fard, a software engineer, and Alvin Lim, a health psychologist-turned-software engineer, to no avail.)
Still, concerns about what information a relatively tiny app holds about you feel like the forest for the trees: What good is my “love language” to me compared to a constant log of where I go and who I connect with, what my smartphone already does? I can’t possibly be mad that Dimensional knows my ideal partner is “someone to tell me I’m hot” or that my elemental spirit is “air” (???). I think I can be kind of angry that Dimensional told me that I’m worse than 85 percent of the users at Think, which seems rude.
Mostly though, I think about what those little personality tests in women’s magazines meant to mid-century housewives, or to me, bored and alone in my room as a kid. “They needed things to fill their time,” explains The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova of the first wave of personality tests in magazines. “They needed other ways to signal, ‘I’m alive! This is me, this is me,’ and Quiz was a way of doing that while men had their careers.”
That’s what personality testing feels like to me—less narcissism exercises and more opportunities to reflect, to think about the things that the demands of modern life keep us from doing. “Look, it’s us,” I text my friends in turn as I send them Dimensional’s comparisons. Look how alive we are!
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