In search of the ur-quiz

One of BuzzFeed's most popular features, quizzes' origins in the popular media are surprisingly murky

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.

“Certainly, the quiz format can be found in magazines during the 1940s and 1950s,” Johnson wrote. “I remember reading old magazines—Woman’s Home Companion and Collier’s—that my grandmother had saved and noticing beauty and household quizzes.”

Alan Nourie’s American Mass Market Magazine pinpoints, in the years after World War II, the very first stirrings of what would one day become the Cosmopolitan Quiz: “Quizzes and cartoon in the back pages of articles titled ‘What Not to Tell Your Husband’ and ‘I Was Sure I was Sterile’…began to appear.”

In a 2006 article for the Guardian, the author Lynn Peril provided the most specific evidence of anyone for the true takeover of the Quiz: “In the 1950s, the women’s magazine Ladies Home Journal devised one of the very first regular quizzes for its readers,” she wrote. The quiz was called “Making Marriage Work.”

In the absence of a clear Quiz origin, it seemed fair to look more narrowly at its history in one publication—and what better magazine to choose than Cosmo, which not only has mastered the quiz but is proud of it? A browse through the Cosmo archives, starting in the mid-1960s, just before Helen Gurley Brown took over, revealed that, even at this late date, quizzes were not a regular feature of the magazine. And even after Brown took over, it took a few years for pseudo-psychological tests to make their way into Cosmo’s pages with any sort of regularity.

The first quiz-like feature to come in during Brown’s tenure was published In May 1966. Cosmo invited its readers to “Rate your roommate potential,” by testing their “LF (livability factor)” against rules like “No flirty eyes” and “forget the purple walls.” It was more a proto-quiz—an article with a bit of interactivity tacked on.

In June of that year, Cosmo published a strangely complicated personality test, “The Test of the Unfaithful Wife.” It begins with a complicated story about a woman who cheated on her husband and ended up dead because no one would give her money to pay off a madman on the bridge who blocked her way home the next morning. Readers were supposed to list who they thought was responsible for the cheating wife’s death, in order of blame. Whichever characters came in first and last on that list reveal something about the person taking the test. (Your correspondant, for example, has “a keen awareness of the difficulties of existence” and a “lively self-esteem.” She thought it was mostly the madman’s fault. Then the wife.)

Later that summer, though, Cosmo published a quiz boasting a raison d’etre that could have come out of any one of the recent ones on BuzzFeed:

Every person is concerned with his uniqueness, his special personality. “Who am I?” asks the young person growing up. And again and again this is a question we whisper each time we look in the mirror. Sometimes we are surer, other times less so. Often our own self-evaluation has little resemblance to what other people think of us.

The quiz was titled “How well do you know yourself?”—the question that, implicitly, every personality quiz before or since has asked. Unlike a modern-day BuzzFeed quiz, though, this one had a sheen of respectability. It was written by Dr. Ernest Dichter, who, Cosmo boasted to its readers, “received his PhD in psychology from the University of Vienna and his Licence des Lettre at the Sorbonne…He is considered the leading exponent and practitioner of motivational research—the study that uses psychology and social scientific techniques to determine what makes people buy.” He even had his own research center in the Hudson Valley.

Dr. Dichter’s powers had their limits, though. “This test does not claim to be completely absolute and scientific, but it is a good indication of your temperament,” he wrote. “We have tried it on many people. It works.”

Readers were shown a series of pictures of a woman at a party or skiing or out in the yard and asked to select the caption that described the woman’s thoughts in that situation. Their answers revealed some deep truth about their femininity or common sense.

Even after these first forays, though, the Quiz did not immediately become a regular feature in Cosmo, even as horoscopes, lists, and other lighter-than-air fare filled the magazines’ pages. Perhaps the editors worried about the fact that even Dr. Dichter’s credentials did not convince readers that these tests could possibly have much connection to reality. “Was Ernest Dichter’s ‘How Well Do You Know Yourself?’ a tongue-in-cheek feature, or was he serious about the captions?” one reader wrote in to ask.

But once the Quiz was released, like an invasive species, it stayed and spread, adapting to its environment. Cosmo learned its secret: Drop the pretense and just let the Quiz be what it is—the first feature you turn to in a magazine, the thing you click on when you should be working, the little fiction that makes us feel good about ourselves. Any coverage of BuzzFeed’s success was going to be vacuous: Whenever we try to take these quizzes seriously, we’re fooling ourselves. Sometimes the illusion of truth is all any of us want.

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Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications. Tags: , , ,