Why Dumb Internet Quizzes Work
The Positive Test Strategy
Back in early 2021 I wrote an article which suggested that Buzzfeed writers would eventually be replaced by an AI of some sort. This was long before Chat GPT or any software like it had been shown to the public so there weren’t many people who believed such a thing could happen. A few days after writing that I decided to write a simple program that proved a Buzzfeed writer’s job could be taken by AI, at least when it came to making those stupid personality quizzes Buzzfeed is famous for. You can find a link to that program in this poorly written article which the article you are reading now is a rewrite of.
The most interesting part of my program was what happened at the end of the quiz, when all the questions are answered and the user clicks “Submit”. At that point the program tells them something along the lines of “You are like Captain America, trustworthy and loyal,” but that answer would have nothing to do with any of the questions that were asked. The response is random yet believable. Had I spent the time to make the webpage look pretty and pushed it out in a Facebook ad there would have been plenty of people who would have been in awe thinking I had some sort of window into their soul when in reality it was all just random chance.
Admittedly, the conclusions of similar quizzes you’d find on Buzzfeed probably aren’t decided randomly, but there is a good reason why they could be due to a principle I learned while reading the psychologist Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.
Early in the book Cialdini explains that he picked up palm reading as a random skill to have. As he read a bunch of peoples’ palms he was amazed that nearly everyone reacted with a similar expression of shock and surprise after he analyzed the lines in their hands. Over time this amazement turned into curiosity and skepticism as his scientific mind began to suspect that there was some sort of trick behind it all.
One day he was given the opportunity to put his skepticism to the test. He was at a party where word got out that he could read palms and people started asking for palm readings. The host of the party was one of the first to want their palm read and as Cialdini bent back the man’s thumb to see the lines there he told the host that he could tell he was a stubborn man. The host thought for a second and told Cialdini that he was right, agreeing that he was a stubborn man. Over the course of the party the host had a few drinks and managed to forget that he already had a palm reading so he went back to Cialdini to get his palm read again. This time when Cialdini pulled back the host’s thumb he told him that he was quite a flexible man. The host thought for a second and told Cialdini that he was right, agreeing that he was a flexible man.
How could it be that a man could have his palm read twice, end up with two opposite results but agree with them both times? Cialdini explains:
There’s a very human reason for why you’d be prone to fall for my trick. Its obtuse scientific name is “positive test strategy.” But it comes down to this: in deciding whether a possibility is correct, people typically look for hits rather than misses; for confirmations of the idea rather than for disconfirmations. It is easier to register the presence of something than its absence.
When the man was told that he was stubborn he wasn’t looking back at his life looking for times when he had been flexible. And when he was told he was flexible he wasn’t looking back at all the times he had been stubborn. When he was told that he was stubborn he only looked back to remember the times that he was stubborn and when told that he was flexible he only looked back to times he had been flexible. Our brains are wired to try to prove these kind of things rather than disprove them, especially when it is within the context of a palm reading or a dumb internet quiz.
It also helps that the results of palm readings and dumb internet personality quizzes are often quite generic. Anyone can look back in their lives to find a time where they were stubborn, or flexible, or loyal, or clumsy when they are primed to do so.
The positive test strategy also explains why so many people believe in astrological signs or whatever people like to call birthday racism these days. It doesn’t matter if you are a Gemini or a Leo or something else, you’ll be able to look up the traits you’re supposed to have based on the month you were born and find all the times in your life that you acted like an Aquarius and be amazed at how accurately that describes your personality, when in reality you have acted like all twelve of the different things before.
Don’t let these cheap tricks fool you. Seek to understand the positive test strategy and recognize when your brain may default to it. A randomly generated quiz about what you like to eat for breakfast isn’t going to give you some important insight for your life.