Meet Yourself discovered this strategy long before today’s click-miners. The book’s co-authors, the British novelist William Gerhardie and the Spanish aristocrat Prince Leopold Loewenstein—whose son, incidentally, went on to be the financial manager of the Rolling Stones—flip freely between promises of profound insights and guarantees of fun.
If the limited information out there about the book’s critical reception is any indication, people have never taken Meet Yourself too seriously. A short review in a March 1937 issue of Ohio’s Piqua Daily Call deems it “a fairly amusing way of filling in an odd hour or so,” and includes this sick 1930s burn: “If you sit down prayerfully with it and answer all of its impertinent questions, you will never again be phased by any little thing like an income tax or civil service examination blank.” Decades later, a columnist for The Independent ran into the book on a trip with her boyfriend to her parents’ house, and cracked up when it announced to the family that the boyfriend was “a conqueror of women.”
As BuzzFeed’s quizzes really started gaining steam a few years ago, a deluge of think-pieces attempted to make sense of why people just can’t get enough of them, even when they clearly have little to do with reality. Reasons included narcissism, existential searching, and boredom. Laskow made the case that people simply like talking about themselves. These probably are all true, to some extent. But they overlook something deeper about the nature of personality itself.
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Simine Vazire believes that a good personality test rarely tells you anything you don’t already know. As director of the Personality and Self-Knowledge Lab at the University of California, Davis, she studies how people come to understand who they are. “We know a lot just by being in our bodies, by being ourselves,” she says. Tests promising to unveil hidden truths about their takers—tests known as projective in psychology—are mostly bogus.
What tests offer instead, Vazire suggests, is reflection. “When you have someone summarize to you what you just told them, it gives you a sense of, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s what I was trying to say.’ I think this is just a version of that,” she says. “Because you’re talking about yourself, and you’re answering a bunch of questions about yourself, a test can summarize this information for you. It can give you a precise or better language for summarizing yourself, even if it’s based on what you told it.”
This reflection isn’t the quasi-mystical type of self-knowledge Meet Yourself claims to be after. It doesn’t show you as you really are, but rather helps you articulate who you know yourself to be.
That distinction might sound trivial, but it actually makes a critical point about how personality functions. In its textbook definition, personality is all about patterns: “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving,” as the American Psychological Association puts it. Personality, in other words, is not some set thing. It’s the result of a messy web of tendencies and habits, all informed by some incalculable mix of biology, disposition, and learned behavior.