I have a confession, which is that although 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” to label everyday phenomena, for instance — I love personality quizzes, which effectively do the same thing. In the parlance of personality quizzes, your everyday behaviors and thought patterns take on spectacular special meanings; you’re not just “adventurous” or “athletic,” you’re a gryffindor. You’re not obsessive in love, you’re anxious-attached. You’re more than just playful and impulsive, you’re an Enneagram Type 7a designation I share with Joe Biden, Paris Hilton, and Mozart.
A few weeks ago, I made 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 quizzes, and then the app compares you to your loved ones who are also on the app: how similarly you behave in the workplace, how compatible you are in love, whether you share the same values. I downloaded it immediately and then wrangled as many friends as I could to do the same.
Like Co-Star, the wildly popular astrology app that sends its users wry daily missives like “Start a cult” or personal negs like “Maybe you just need a roll in the hay,” Dimensional contains a fair bit of Instagram bait. After you’re done with all the assessments — there are currently 10 of them, relating to things like “conflict style” and “values;” completing them all takes about an hour — Dimensional will serve you “stories,” or Instagram-ready slides listing your “worst habits in love” or “most toxic traits.” (“Taking it personally when other people want alone time” and “crushing on everyone” ripped me to shreds.)
Its pleasant-looking UX is far from the most fun part about Dimensional. Once you’ve forced a friend to join, you can read an AI’s opinion of your relationship. On my best friend and me: “Rebecca not only loves when they’re told how someone feels about them, they usually need to hear these affirmations to feel appreciated. Mary Kate does not express gratitude or affirmation instinctively.” On another friend and me: “You’re the Bonnie and Clyde of relationships. You two seek independence from the world — not each other.”
These little insights aren’t interesting to anyone but us, obviously. No personality test is, which is exactly why they’re such good respects from traditional social media: There are no photos, no liking, no performing for an imagined mass of invisible strangers. Rather than act as brands and media companies and megaphones, we reflect on our own humanness — and then, yes, upload that data into the cloud.
We’ve endured more than a decade of discourse and academic research on whether anyone is really “themselves” on the internet, and we’re now at the stage where a crop of social media platforms have marketed themselves as “anti-Instagram” apps : no self-promotion, no ads, no chance at getting famous. Out of them all — Dispo, Poparazzi, BeReal — only the latter has seemed to transcend fad status, although it’s still early in its popularity.
Dimensional doesn’t bear many similarities to these apps. For one, the entire premise of Dimensional relies on what is essentially a one-time experience: You take the quizzes, you wait for your friends to take them, then you compare. There’s a limit on how much time you spend there, which prevents it from attracting the kind of venture capital that helped early social media startups launch but demands growth — more users, more engagement, more ad dollars — at all costs. Paradoxically, that’s exactly what makes it so pleasurable to use: You can get burned out by the neverending churn of your TikTok or Twitter feeds, but using Dimensional is more like reading an article starring yourself.
Personality tests have always been a little cheesy and a little scoffed at, 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 dated Jungian theories as justification for its scientific claims. They satisfy human beings’ instinct for tribalism: Being sorted into a group makes us feel more comfortable. What’s more, we’ll start to identify with that group no matter what it actually is, a phenomenon known as the Barnum effect. We’ve been typifying people as far back as 400 BC, when Hippocrates believed that every person belonged to one of the four humors. The more modern roots of the personality quiz lie in women’s magazines, which started including many more front-of-book games and puzzles post-World War I. By the 2010s, an entire venture-backed media company relied on addictive quizzes to skyrocket its growth.
Personality testing takes on a more complicated meaning in the age of Big Data. If you’re a person who has high “neuroticism” in your Big Five personality chart, you are likely to see an app like Dimensional as a field day for data privacy abuse. This is a fair concern: In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, the data firm Cambridge Analytica used widely shared personality quizzes to compile data on 87 million Facebook users without them knowing. With access to more intimate details than demographics or hobbies — what makes someone anxious, what they fear, how they form relationships — it’s not difficult to imagine a worst-case scenario.
But honestly, as much as I care about such breaches of security and privacy, it’s difficult for me to care all that much about the information I’ve given Dimensional, which feels like a pittance compared to what I’ve given Google or Apple or Facebook or Twitter or TikTok or my period tracker, all of which would likely willingly hand it all over to police or to the state if they were asked nicely. In a Reddit AMA from 2020, Dimensional’s founders stated that at the time, they had no plans to monetize via personal advertising “given we’re dealing with people’s personal data and doesn’t really align with our goal of actually improving people’s lives through self /mutual awareness,” and that “we store psychometric data on different database from login data for security reasons.” (I tried to get in touch with the co-founders of Dimensional, Saeid Fard, a software developer, and Alvin Lim, a health psychologist turned software engineer, to no avail.)
Even so, concerns about what information a relatively tiny app contains about you feel like missing the forest for the trees: What use is my “love language” compared to a constant log of where I go and who I associate with, which my smartphone already have you? I can’t possibly be angry that Dimensional knows my ideal partner is “someone who tells me I’m hot” or that my elemental spirit is “Air” (???). I guess I can sort of be angry that Dimensional told me that I am lower on the “Thinking” function than 85 percent of users, which seems rude.
Mostly, though, I’m reminded of what those little personality quizzes in women’s magazines meant to mid-century housewives, or to me, bored and alone in my room as a child. “They needed things to fill their time,” explains the New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova of the initial wave of magazine personality quizzes. “They needed other ways to signal, ‘I’m alive! This is me, this is who I am’ and perhaps were a way of doing that, whereas men had their careers.”
This is what personality tests feel like to me — less exercises in narcissism and more opportunities to reflect, to think about the kinds of things we’re prevented from thinking about by the demands of modern life. “Look, it’s us,” I text my friends, one by one, as I send them Dimensional’s comparisons. Look how alive we are!
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