Web Users Go Nuts over Personality Tests ; with the Soaring Popularity of Online Identity Tests, 'Self- Discovery' - of Sorts - Is Now Just a Few Clicks Away

Article excerpt

Garit Reuble has learned a lot about himself recently. He has excellent emotional intelligence, his "inner rock star" is Beck, his social insight is average, and his perfect religion is Unitarian Universalism.

Best of all, the Seattle graphic designer was able to learn all this in just a few minutes - without uttering a single word, or moving from his desk.

Mr. Reuble derived his profile not through intimate chats, not after a Zen-like period of self-reflection, but by filling out online personality tests. And the results rang true. "Everything sounds like me," he says.

Identity-revealing quizzes are the latest Internet craze, say tech-industry experts. With thousands of free tests at one's fingertips, crossing the line between self-awareness and navel- gazing has never been easier. The tests' popularity has put a new spin on a familiar cultural debate: Are Americans obsessed with themselves?

Where the phrase "rugged individualism" defined Americans from Daniel Boone to test-pilot Chuck Yeager, Americans today are increasingly exploring cerebral and emotional frontiers.

By clicking a few multiple-choice answers, millions of Web- browsers are learning to classify themselves as "idealist," "rationalist," "hedonist," or "traditionalist" - and debate the merits of each. In a testament to the spread of pop psychology in American culture, a confession of being an "intuitive mediator" these days can draw admiring nods on the subway - especially if the listener is a "security-seeking guardian."

Entertainment and insight overlap

Leading the trend is www.emode.com, which has given feedback to over 100 million curious test-takers since its launch in 1999. The site was named "Rising Star of the Internet" at this year's prestigious Webby Awards for being the fastest-growing website of 2002. It offers over 100 exams, and bills itself as "The No. 1 Destination for Self-Discovery."

The online tests range from deeply serious ("Do I have a personality disorder?") to entertaining ("What is my Romantic Personality?") to frivolous ("What does the way I eat soup say about me?"). There are tests that take five minutes, and batteries of introspection that rival the SAT, with virtual "pages" of questions followed by pages of results.

The most popular tests are those that straddle entertainment and insight. Their growing popularity is "an assertion of identity," says David Silver, a cyberculture expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. He links the trend to a backlash against the Internet's reputation as a place where people invent, rather than reveal, identities.

"People find out who they are, and then they start forwarding e- mails to their friends to tell them about it," says Dr. Silver.

'A social activity'

Christine Whitney, a Boston publisher who confesses to having "a funny compulsion to take these sorts of things," calls the tests "a social activity to some extent.... I used to do them with groups of friends, and we'd talk through our responses as we made them, and try to get all the dirty news."

But now, the experience is more independent - and efficient: Ms. Whitney completes tests swiftly, then compares notes with a friend who has taken the same ones.

The tests also serve a social function as a type of mirror. Mark Leary, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University in Winston- Salem, N.C., says most people are "trying to confirm their self- image. They want to make sure their perception of themselves is accurate."

That's the case for Mr. Reuble, the budding Beck disciple. He says with satisfaction, "I pretty much like the way I am. …