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Why we love personality quizzes, even when we know they’re meaningless

Daniel Radcliffe and Sorting Hat in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Warner Bros.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

When the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter rolled around at the end of June, the internet brimmed with Potter-related content galore. But one of the most popular observances of the anniversary was that old reliable: the Hogwarts sorting quiz, which reveals to all who take it which of the four houses of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is the best fit for them. Will they be deemed a brave and chivalrous Gryffindor? A wise and clever Ravenclaw? A cunning, ambitious Slytherin? A kind, chill Hufflepuff?

Time magazine quickly won the laurels for the most scientifically meaningful test — the publication worked with social scientists to identify measurable psychological traits, which it then associated with each house. But there are plenty of other Hogwarts sorting quizzes available online, each with their devotees. There’s the Pottermore quiz, which is technically the “official” quiz, since it was designed by J.K. Rowling herself. There’s the cult favorite Almighty Guru quiz. And of course there are multiple options on BuzzFeed, and more all over the web.

Sorting quizzes are silly and fun, but they can also cause existential crises. A longtime self-identified Slytherin I know was furious when Time’s quiz sorted her into Gryffindor, and decided that she would take it over and over again until it gave her the answer she wanted. After the Pottermore quiz debuted in 2011, Twitter and Reddit were awash with confusion from Harry Potter fans who had spent years identifying with one house but had been just been sorted into another, and now had to figure out why.

It’s the type of scenario that causes people to really question their sense of self: If you’ve always thought you’re a heroic Gryffindor and then a bunch of online quizzes tell you that you belong in Ravenclaw, or if you think of yourself as a cunning, ambitious Slytherin but you test into Hufflepuff, what does that say about you? That’s why, years ago in the dark ages of the internet, the phrase “bartending in the dark” became a meme after a disgruntled Harry Potter fan insisted that a fandom sorting community should sort him into Slytherin despite their refusal to do so, because after all, he bartended in the dark.

Beyond the Hogwarts sorting quiz, there are dozens of popular ways of classifying your personality. There’s astrology, which in many ways is the OG Hogwarts quiz. There’s Meyers-Briggs, beloved by corporations across the country, which has been proven to be psychologically meaningless but which is, I must admit, is my personality quiz of choice. (You can tell I’m an INTP because I have spent hours reading about cognitive function stacks in order to get a more accurate typing, even though I don’t believe that Meyers-Briggs is a real thing.) Few of these personality tests, in fact, measure anything that psychologists believe can actually be measured — but that doesn’t stop the tests from being extremely fun to take.

The Meyers-Briggs test revolves around dualities that don’t really exist (introversion and extroversion, for instance, are assessed on a sliding scale, and are not opposites) and is entirely based on outmoded Jungian theories. And Time magazine’s Hogwarts sorting quiz may have some scientific basis, but most of the sorting quizzes scattered across the internet are impressionistic and silly and make no claims about scientific accuracy. The horoscopes in every newspaper are a weird hangover from 19th-century mysticism that persist because they’re fun, but have absolutely no scientific basis whatsoever (and tabloid astrology is widely discredited by serious astrologers, too).

So what is it about personality quizzes like the Meyers-Briggs test and the Hogwarts sorting quiz and newspaper horoscopes and BuzzFeed’s entire quiz category that are so immensely compelling? Why are we drawn to them even when we know they don’t mean anything?

The answer lies in a very real, widely documented psychological concept.

Human brains are wired for tribalism. Personality quizzes help satisfy that impulse.

Tribalism is a basic part of the way human brains work: We find our group, we stick to it, and the tribe to which we belong fundamentally affects the ways in which we perceive the world.

In the 1970s, social scientist Henri Tajfel ran a series of experiments that showed how incredibly easy it is to get ordinary people into a tribal mentality. It’s called the “minimal group design,” and it basically goes like this: Researchers will assign people to opposing teams (named for colors, animals, favorite authors) just by flipping a coin. The team can be made up of total strangers. But still, people start to favor their teammates almost instantaneously. At the end of the experiment, all of the subjects are isolated and told to split a pool of money between two other people, one from their team and one from the opposing team.

Overwhelmingly, Tajfel’s subjects awarded more money to fellow members of their team, even though they were all well-aware that their group was based on practically nothing. Preference for one group or another — tribalism — is consistently pleasurable to human brains, even when we know that there is no real reason for it. And that tribalist instinct can extend to something as silly and frivolous as Hogwarts houses.

“People identify with all kinds of groups,” says Jay Van Bavel, a professor of psychology and neural science at NYU. “That includes everything from your favorite sports team or your country, to seemingly arbitrary groups, like going to the gym and forming a pickup basketball team for the day, or identifying with Apple or Microsoft. Tribalism is deeply burned into the ways our brains and minds operate, and it manifests in all different kinds of ways.”

In recent months, most of the popular writing about tribalism has focused on how it affects political parties and leads to the bubble effect, wherein members of one political tribe seek out viewpoints that conform with their own and avoid conflicting information, because conflicting information feels unpleasant and hearing ideas you agree with feels good. Often, people will go out of their way to interpret information in a way that lines up with their own tribal ideology. That’s how important tribes are to our brains.

This research is usually used to talk about political polarization, but it also explains why personality tests are so seductive. (Republicans versus Democrats: like the Hogwarts houses, but with real-world stakes!) There is something wildly compelling about the idea that by identifying with a personality type, you have found your group.

It’s a tribalist instinct that feels as though it has a kind of purity to it. You can’t choose your family, it’s legally complicated to choose your country, and friendships often develop out of some sort of geographic convenience. But an affiliation based on personality type feels as though it’s built on an objective truth. Your personality matches with this particular group, and that’s a fact. (It’s not really, because again, these tests are not scientifically meaningful, but it feels like a fact.)

And it’s a tribalist fantasy that gives the individual a sense of control. In real life, once you belong to a group, your brain will alter the way you see the world in order to make you mesh with the group more easily. But in the fantasy, you pick a group because it already meshes perfectly with your brain. No alteration is required on your part.

The idea of personality-based tribalism is the dystopian impulse behind the first volume of the YA series Divergent, and it’s the utopian impulse behind recent books like Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning: Imagine a world in which your closest relationships are based not on where you grew up or who you’re related to, but instead center on the people with whom your personality meshes. They’re based on what you value most and hold to be most important in life. How pure. How ideal. How compelling.

And on a much smaller level, the same utopian fantasy is what leads us to indulge in games like the Hogwarts sorting quizzes and the Meyers-Briggs test and newspaper horoscopes, even when we know them to be fake. They satisfy our brains’ tribalist impulses, and they also give us the illusion of control: You are part of this particular group, you will fit in perfectly, and nothing about you will ever need to change. Fantasies don’t get much more seductive than that.

Having said that, I’m a Ravenclaw. What about you?