If you ever doubt that journalism is a glorious line of work, just remember that we reporters can justify what for most people would count as a blatant shirking of responsibility—taking endless BuzzFeed quizzes—as “research.”
In the past month, there has been so much coverage of the viral success of its quirky personality quizzes, you’d think BuzzFeed had invented the form. The most popular of Buzzfeed’s quizzes rack up tens of millions of pageviews. Even a solid sponsored quiz can earn a million or so. But the many stories on this phenom have accomplished mainly one thing. They have managed to answer the question of what, if any, factual basis there is for BuzzFeed’s quizzes: Not much at all. (Nieman Journalism Lab: “BuzzFeed quizzes are crafted to create the illusion of truth, or potential truth. ‘You sort of write them like horoscopes, with tidbits people can relate to.’”)
These stories have had a harder time explaining why we like these quizzes so much to begin with. Oh, reporters have asked, and come up with plenty of answers: “People love to share things that kind of represent who they are” (Mashable); “our narcissistic desire to be categorized” (Nieman); “the age-old fascination with that central question — ‘Who AM I?’” (the AP); “a sense of narrative psychology” (HuffPo). All of this hand-waving boils down to a truth universally acknowledged: We like talking about ourselves.
Offering up glib ways to create identity—shortcuts to the self—is a winning business proposition, whether measured in pageviews or newsstand sales. But when, exactly, did the popular media figure how out to tame this primal power? From whence did the Quiz arise?
No one knows. (Reports range from “for years and years” to “for decades.”) Digging deeper only revealed that the Quiz’s origins in the popular media are surprisingly murky. Magazines did once make at least some effort to claim that they were creating not an illusion of truth, but a real window into a person’s psychology. Even Cosmopolitan, which has mastered the art of assessing “Do You Have Sexy Confidence? Do You Make a Fabulous Impressions?” in 10 questions or less once created elaborate, multi-part tests, written by many-degreed men, that asked “How Well Do You Know Yourself?” or tried to “Rate Your Roommate Potential.” But readers were never fooled.
To be fair, creating a legitimate, scientific, dependable personality test is next to impossible, even when leaning heavily on actual science. The Myers-Briggs test, for instance, has been shown to have only a little more descriptive power than a horoscope.
But if you’re looking for the first personality test popularly used in America, there’s an answer, or, at least, a generally agreed upon answer—the Woodworth Psychoneurotic Inventory. The Army wanted a test to determine which soldiers would best stand up to the stresses of fighting in World War I, and the American Psychological Association provided this one. After the war, Robert Woodworth, who designed the test, rejiggered it for civilian use. It’s less fun than a BuzzFeed quiz—the yes-or-no questions include “Did you ever have the habit of wetting the bed? ” and “Do you ever have a queer feeling as if you were not your old self?”—but if interested, you can still take the WPI online.
But start looking for the same sort of ur-Quiz in the media, and it’s hard to find a responsible party.
“I can’t identify a specific publication moment for the first quiz in a magazine,” Sammye Johnson, professor of communications at Trinity University and the co-author of The Magazine from Cover to Cover, wrote in an email. “However, I suspect that quizzes (though they may not have been called that name) may have been around since the earliest magazines were started. From the beginning, American magazines emphasized varied and eclectic content to entertain and inform readers.”
Another popular guess was that quizzes started making appearances in the late 1800s, when ladies’ magazines started gaining traction and the yellow press would try anything to sell papers. A search through Frank Luther Mott’s History of American Magazines turned up only one reference to quizzes, but it provides some back-up to that theory: “The most important of mail-order [ladies] journals was Comfort, a monthly begun in August in 1888,” Mott wrote. “One has no trouble in understanding the fascination that Comfort had for children or the values that housewives found in it. There were corners for puzzles, quizzes, cycle clues, comics, plastery, and so on, in great variety.”
But it seems like the Quiz did not become truly popular until decades later. When? Well…
James Woods’ Magazines in the United States says that, after World War I, “a greater variety of short features, cartoons, quips, puzzles and amusements was introduced” to magazines in general.