A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Sunday, May 4, 2014

As Yoda as you wanna be

You are Spock.  Logical and sharp-witted, you are a natural for the role of Science Officer…

Oh, heck, yes.  Science Officer!  Logical!  Sharp-witted!  Of course I am.  I’m totally Spock… unless I take the online quiz again, choosing a different favorite shirt color.  In that case, I am... the starship captain?

You are Kirk. With a quick mind and a way with words, your decision-making abilities and persuasive personality are legendary. A worthy warrior and a convincing orator, you are just as likely to talk an adversary to death as to engage in physical combat.  Prone to long-winded bouts of rhetoric, you are nonetheless known to be a charmer.

What?  Long-winded bouts of rhetoric?  Um… like, say, seventy-one blog posts, all jam-packed with words, and all hewing closely to the well-honed topic of Whatever Nancy Happens to be Thinking About?

Oh.  Yeah, okay.  I guess I’m… a little Kirk-y… except for the charming part.  I’m pretty sure I’m severely lacking in that department, because I never, ever find curvaceous green women in my bed.*  But, regardless of my ways with the ladies – or lack thereof -- I definitely think of myself as more Spock-y.

But in the world of online quizzes, do my preferences really matte?  Once the results appear on the screen, the quiz has spoken -- and it has me pegged. (You are Yoda.)  It knows me. (You are Aragorn.)  It has completely figured out who I am. (You are Katniss.) It is providing me with a flattering mirror, a personal affirmation, a somewhat vague yet mostly complimentary box in which to put myself.  You are Spock.  That’s who I thought I was, and that’s who I am.  I’m validated.  Isn’t that why we take these quizzes in the first place?

A recent New Yorker article (Maria Konnikova, May 1 2014) posited as much, citing the well-known “Forer Effect” as a reason why these tests appeal to us, and why we believe what they tell us.

In 1948, psychologist Bertram Forer told his students that the typewritten sheets he was handing out were unique analyses of the personality of each member of the class, based on the questionnaire they’d filled out previously.

In reality, every “analysis” was exactly the same.

“You have a great need for other people to like and admire you... You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage… Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside… You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof….”

The students, when asked to rate these results, were almost universally impressed by their accuracy.  Yes, that’s totally me!  I’m Spock, for sure!

So much for “independent thinker”.  So much for “satisfactory proof”.

The term “Forer Effect” was henceforth used to denote the now many-times-tested principle that people will overwhelmingly buy into the accuracy of vague personal assessments, provided that these assessments include lots of positive statements and are believed to be personally tailored to the individual.

Fortune-tellers and horoscope-writers wallow lucratively in the Forer effect – and did so long before it had a name.  Bolstered by the not-so-subtle cues of body language, dress, mannerisms, age, and gender, there’s a heck of a lot that Madame Zelda can tell you about tall dark strangers, personal aspirations, or the curvaceous green women you’re longing to find in your bed.

But are these online quizzes just a whole load of crystal-ball mumbo-jumbo?  What makes it SO DAMN TEMPTING to know whether I am a kick-ass teen-girl Defender of the Right named Katniss, or her sensitive, artistic, bread-baking boyfriend Peeta?  Why do I care whether an online algorithm says I’m Leia or Yoda, or (as promised by one peculiarly obscure quiz) Basil, Oregano, Marjoram, or Tarragon?  Why do I want to click?  IT’S NOT LOGICAL!

…Like Spock, you struggle with ethical dilemmas that seem at odds with your innate sense of reason…

Precisely.  It’s not logical.  In fact, the addictiveness of these quizzes is so illogical that they bring out all my most evil and sarcastic urges.  You’re going to tell me, in a Facebook post time-stamped at 1 a.m., that your “herbal archetype” is Basil, which indicates that “…you have a beautiful soul, and it shines through in the way you treat others?”  Alas, I am clearly not Basil myself, unless perhaps I’m Basil Fawlty.  My un-beautiful soul sniggers, and starts crafting new archetypes:

"You are bacon salt. Tacky and artificial, you tend to raise the blood pressure of anyone with whom you interact...."

"You are jeotgal. Like a long-fermented fish, your company is memorable -- but not at all in the way you'd like to be memorable..."

"You are chervil. Everyone sort of vaguely thinks they've heard of you, but no one knows what the hell to do with you, so they'll probably just go right on ignoring you..."

Of course, none of the “real” results are likely to tell you that you are an insufferable loser with all the personality and side-effects of a bucket of MSG. Can we possibly learn anything from these ultra-brief tests if all the results are benign and complimentary?  Does anyone take these quizzes and discover that they are Darth Vader, Cersei Lannister, and Cruella DeVille rolled into one tidy Hitler-flavored package?  Probably not, unless they are a thirteen-year-old hell-bent on rigging the results.

Still, I find myself wondering whether the quiz-player might (just might) be discovering something a little beyond what can be gained from a newspaper horoscope.  After all, even if the set of results is limited, this is not quite the same as Forer’s “something for everyone” uniform output.  In answering one of these questionnaires, and in agonizing over choice A or choice B, I am examining some of the traits that make a person the hero, the sidekick, the comic relief, or the villain.  I am, at least at some level, searching my psyche.

Am I Tyrion Lannister?  Please?  Really. I mean, I know that being a bitter, tragic, violent, whoring, drunken dwarf doesn’t sound all that great on paper, but I really want to be that bitingly funny, that stereotype-busting-tough, that sharply brilliant, that… Tyrion.  I want to know and affirm myself, yes, but I also want to mold myself, change myself, and reimagine myself.

The urge to discover ones archetype via the internet in the wee hours is not entirely logical, but I’m not convinced it’s merely the Forer Effect at work.  To me, accepting Forer’s results stems from our (very human and almost universal) tendencies to want to fit in, to feel that we are known and understood, to see ourselves in a relatively positive light, and to be obliviously self-centered.  Konnikova cites this rationale in the New Yorker, and I do agree that part of the appeal of “Which Star Trek Character Are You?” lies well within this realm.  However, the Forer Effect doesn’t really reflect intense curiosity, a trait that is also very human and almost universal -- but a lot more fun than complacent self-appreciation.  Nor does it reflect self-doubt, or the urge to live closer to a large yet untapped potential – two qualities so ubiquitous that they were happily accepted as individually true by almost every student in Forer’s psychology class.

Am I Tyrion Lannister?  And if not, how can I become him?  How can I find the right answers – and the right self – to be blaster-toting Empire-defying Princess Leia rather than pedantic, cowardly, pointy-headed, irritating (albeit weirdly loveable) C-3PO?   And if I’m not Basil, how can I be… more Basil?

…but you recognize the value of these internal struggles in growing as a person…

Exactly.  Sure, it might be more effective to try to examine and remake ourselves via years of psychotherapy, several 12-step programs, a Master’s Degree in engineering, a new exercise regimen, and a public-speaking course.  It might be logical to realize that eight or ten questions pertaining to your attitude on Away Missions, your response to warp-drive failures, and your preferred color of uniform shirt probably can’t help you find an inner self that is a dramatically more scientific or radically more likely to woo the aliens.  But most of us don’t have the time, money, or fortitude for the Full Archetypal Makeover.  We struggle along with the limited TV-referenced role-models we have at hand. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t trying.  It doesn’t mean that we aren’t hoping.  And it doesn’t mean that we can’t change.

The New Yorker article notes that people blatantly lie on online quizzes.  Well, maybe.  I mean, come on, I REALLY want to be Tyrion!  But if you are lying (to yourself) about (your own) emotional states and (your own) preferences, maybe it’s not so much dishonesty as, I don’t know, questing?  The psychological literature tells us – over and over again, on behalf of our kids and ourselves – that we become whom we imagine or believe ourselves to be.  Tell a child she’s stupid, irresponsible, and mean, and you might well end up with exactly the kid you prophesied.  Tell yourself you are brilliant, narcissistic, and psychopathically cruel, and you too can be Cersei. But learn to believe – really believe -- that you are brave in the face of tyranny, deeply wise (with enough humor to offset your gravitas), and surprisingly resourceful for a Muppet, and you might become just a bit more Yoda.

We take the quizzes.  We tell our friends -- tongue firmly in cheek and self-effacing-sarcasm meter cranked to “high” -- that we are Basil.  And then we try – honestly, if imperfectly -- to live up to our own leafy, herbal accolades.

“You have a beautiful soul, and it shines through in the way you treat others.” 

Yes.  Yes, it really does, my friend. 

…Your bouts of self-reflection have made you wiser.  May you live long and prosper.

See?  See?  I AM Spock.  I knew it all along.

*That is, not yet.  Anyone want to hold a Halloween party this year?

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