March 31, 2021
By Sulagna Misra
Have you taken the Difficult Person Test?
A friend sent it to me, and I sent it to other friends. Most of us shrugged off the questions — the answers seemed pretty obvious. And yet everyone got slightly different results. While the majority (including myself) scored on the “easy to get along with” side, I was struck by how we each had different ranges of the seven traits highlighted:
Not only that, but none of us got a score of 0%, meaning none of us are 0% difficult people. It turns out that even if you think you’re easy to work and get along with, you still probably have at least one of these annoying traits.
Personality quizzes have been popular since they were invented, but I am puzzled that this particular one — one of the most unflattering tests I’ve ever found — went viral earlier this year.
Hogwarts Houses, MBTI, which TV character are you — the results of these viral quizzes are typically fawning descriptions of our most admirable qualities. But in 2021, we decided to kick off the year not by posting about being a strong and brave Gryffindor or a rational and curious INTJ. Instead, we’ve been much more interested in letting everyone know just how difficult other people find us.
Chelsea Sleep, who is a clinical psychology PhD candidate at the University of Georgia and whose research the quiz is based on*, told me she studies these darker personality traits for exactly that reason. “I love thinking about how we conceptualize personality. I think that it’s particularly important for traits like antagonism, that can have significant implications [for individuals], but are relatively understudied compared to other traits.”
On platforms like Tiktok and Twitter, people of every age have been sharing their test results under the hashtag #difficultpersontest, and encouraging others to join in.
This leads me to a question that I was dwelling on after I got my results: Why do I — and other people online — care so much about this quiz? Why do we want to know what sucks about us, and what makes ourselves, and other people, so specifically aggravating?
I believe the pandemic is a big factor.
In the “before times,” I was able to collect a lot of information around what other people thought of me through their facial expressions, body language, availability, tone of voice, and so on. But now my communications have become finely ground into technological bits and pieces. I use text messages and emojis to express my state of mind to friends. I rely on video calls and my internet router to collaborate with my peers. Zoom has become the best platform for an intimate conversation with anyone who is not in my “pod.”
Starting a couple of new jobs during the pandemic has made this even trickier. Suddenly I have coworkers and managers and HR departments. Though there are some perks — they’re all conversing with me at a perfect 90-degree angle, which would be unlikely in real life (I’m 5’3”) — I’m still missing the novel information my mind needs to validate how I’m coming across. Because I don’t have any data points to cling to, it’s easier for me to assume the worst.
I spoke with John Hackston, the head of thought leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, to see if he could give me more insight into the matter. Hackston and his team have conducted research around how our personalities impact our choices, habits, and work. “People are missing social mirrors, their usual way of interacting with others,” he told me. “They’re not getting the same regular information they were getting from interactions before.”
Hackston’s feedback made me realize: Maybe the Difficult Person Test is helping me, and everyone else who became obsessed with it, fill this void. Maybe it is our new social mirror. For the first time in a long time, the quiz gave me a definite answer to how much I might actually be annoying all of the new people in my life. Seeing as how the quiz went viral, maybe I’m not alone in this feeling either.
Naturally, I turned to Google to learn more, and came across an article from therapist and writer Kathleen Smith, “Stop Guessing Who’s Mad At You.”
Smith writes, “One thing I’ve observed with my therapy clients over the course of the pandemic is that many of us have become anxious mind readers, constantly certain that our friends think we’re terrible or our co-workers think we’re lazy. A tiff between siblings suddenly feels irreparable. A Zoom session with a grumpy boss feels like a guarantee that a firing is on the horizon. In isolation, we read every sign as pointing to the same conclusion: Someone is probably upset with us.”
Like Smith observes, this is not a very comfortable place to be in — and lately, I’ve been determined to get out of it.
To start, I looked back at my Difficult Person Test results (with all my new wisdom at hand).
The quiz told me that I’m 30.71% difficult. As you can see in my results below, I got low manipulation, but higher grandiosity. I joked with a friend that this basically means I’m an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect — a brain bias in which people are basically too incompetent to realize they’re not as smart and capable as they think. And despite her high scores in suspicion and aggression, my friend brushed off that interpretation. “I feel that trait actually makes you brave,” she said. When I found out my editor for this piece also got a high grandiosity score, I was inclined to think of it as merely an outcropping of our creative sensibilities.
These interactions opened somewhat of a door for me. In them, I saw potential to flip every one of my “so-called” vices into a virtue. Think about it: Are we “dominant,” or are we assertive? Are we “suspicious,” or are we full of healthy skepticism? In my experience, while we often see evil and good as separate entities that live within us, they are usually deeply connected. Maybe a part of learning about ourselves during this pandemic, and a part of getting out of our anxious, catastrophizing heads, will come from our choice to see our good qualities instead of dwelling on the bad ones.
I followed up with Smith to see if I was headed the right direction.
“Personality tests are a way to manage anxiety,” she said. “It’s naturally calming to be assigned to a group. It seems to say, hey, it’s okay to be this way.” Smith told me that she thinks the quiz is useful for measuring our self-awareness in that way.
“Truly the most difficult people are the ones who have no self-awareness,” she explained. “They are really unable to evaluate their actions objectively.”
So here’s what I’ve come to: The fact that I took this quiz at all — or the fact that you, the reader, now want to take the quiz — shows that we are curious about ourselves and we are self-aware enough to recognize our flaws, both of which are good things. Most of us are trying to do our best, not just during this pandemic but all the time. Our best usually means trying to do right by our friends, families, and colleagues.
We should also consider that the real people to worry about are not ourselves, but the people who would not take this quiz at all. According to Smith’s logic, truly dark personalities aren’t worried about identifying why they are dark. They operate under the principle that they should get opportunities simply because they want them, and their actions hurt others more than themselves. It’s the same kind of narcissism that prevents people from wearing a mask during the pandemic — they’re willing to put everyone at risk for the sake of their ego.
If you took the quiz and found out you’re a little grandiose or suspicious or whatever — then try to do as I now do, and seriously, don’t worry about it. Our participation alone demonstrates our desire to do right by others. That’s the first step towards better cooperation and collaboration in any kind of relationship or work environment.
That, and never scheduling a meeting that could’ve been an email.
*Chelsea Sleep informed us that she hadn’t heard of the Difficult Person Test before we sent it to her, and didn’t contribute to the language or creation of it, but IDRLabs confirms they used her research to create it.