A Look at Life: Online Quizzes

16th October 2015

The Importance of the Unimportant

By Eluned Thorne

I’m going to blame it on having a teenager in the house, but I confess I completed one of those online quizzes the other day. You know – the type that purports to tell you your favourite cupcake flavour using your date of birth, or which Scooby Doo character you would be, or which celebrity is most attracted to you. (A: Lemon and sultana; Velma; Kermit the Frog.)

These quizzes are curiously addictive. So addictive, in fact, that once I’d done one, I tried another, and another, and before I knew what I was doing I’d found out all sorts of things about myself that I didn’t know before. Was this useless information? Probably. Did it enhance my life? Not really. So why was I doing it? Well, read on.

The daft quiz is not new. In the 1970s and 80s teen magazine Jackie featured such gems as ‘Could you Get an ‘A’ level on Boys?’, ‘Are you a Human Dustbin?’ and the enigmatically-titled ‘How can you tell the difference?’. (A: No; yes; ummm…) Moreover, my Beano name, based ludicrously on my birth month and first initial, is one that I won’t be mentioning to my husband, just in case he sniggers and starts using it behind my back. (A: Tooter the Crafty.)

At a basic level, quizzes like this are just a pleasant way of wasting time. And there’s nothing wrong with that. When you’re sitting on the Tube and you’ve already trawled your Facebook feed three times, listened-in on the personal phone conversation going on behind you and read all the online dating adverts above the window, you may as well find out which Friends quotation should be your life motto, or how many UK football strips you can identify. It’s fun, it’s harmless and you might just be surprised. (A: ‘I’m not so good with the advice… Can I interest you in a sarcastic comment?’; 9 out of 20.)

But there’s more to it than that. Yes, it is vaguely interesting when your friend posts on social media that their choice of curry means that they should date Miley Cyrus, or that based on their answers to ‘these five questions’ they are the herb basil, but even as you wonder who Miley Cyrus actually is, or privately decide that they’re definitely tarragon, you are clicking on the link and trying it for yourself. Because what you really want to know is what your answer is. (A: George Clooney; parsley… Okay, I made the first one up. A girl can dream.)

We are all, really, rather self-obsessed. We like a compliment. We like to know what we think about things. We like our opinions to be endorsed. And what better way to feed that obsession than to have someone tell us all about ourselves – without the personal inconvenience of leaving our chair or finding an actual other person to do the deed?

You see, the risk of talking to a real, live human is that they might tell you the truth, and the truth may not be what you want to hear. You may not have noticed, but what these quizzes never do is tell you anything nasty. Even their more unpalatable findings are couched in language that makes you feel good. For example, I was slightly put out when I was told that the Quidditch position I should be playing was ‘Announcer’ (‘Announcer’? That’s not a position! I don’t even get a broomstick!’), but when I read that this was because I was witty and well spoken, I changed my mind and decided that aeronautics are, basically, overrated, dangerous and maybe best left to habitual show-offs.

The other thing about quizzes is that there always is an answer, even if it’s a ridiculous one. It’s definite. You have a score, or you’re a character, or you have a trait. There’s no muddy thinking – you don’t really have to spend ages trying to decide anything important. Life has confusion enough, and knowing which cartoon character you should be, based on your favourite sandwich filling – or whether you can correctly name ten Disney cats – can be very comforting. (A: Olive Oyl; no.)

So, online quizzes – are they a good thing? Well, I expect you could answer ten questions to find out what you really think… but personally, given what I’ve been told, maybe I should be writing them instead, whilst eating a lemon and sultana cupcake, tooting craftily and talking to a Muppet.

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