Three More Litmus Tests

One way you quickly learn about a person is by obtaining a small, easy piece of information that tends to suggest a larger, more complicated trait.

For example, I’ve found that if someone blogs or reads blogs regularly, they are almost always above-average interesting. Litmus tests of this sort are especially helpful when reality collides with someone’s aspirational identity — situations where self-delusion dominates direct answers. If you ask someone, “Are you okay being alone?” most people will say, “Yes.” If you ask, “Are you concerned with how strangers might perceive and judge you?” Most people will say, “Not at all — I’m independent.” But then you might ask, “Do you mind eating at a restaurant alone?” Ah-ha! (Admittedly, there are obvious limits to these things.)

Here are three litmus tests I heard from other people which I found interesting:

1. In how much detail do you plan vacations?

Some people plan their vacations / adventure travel in hourly detail and book all hotels and flights in advance. Others book one roundtrip flight and figure out all the details once on the ground. Where you fall on this question is supposed to reveal whether you are a need-to-be-in-control planner or flexible and adaptable.

2. Do you like sharing your food and tasting others’ food at a meal?

If someone offers you food off their plate to try, do you tend to take it? This is supposed to reveal whether you appreciate diversity and are inclined toward experimentation.

3. Were you popular in high school?

High school is an awkward experience for many teenagers still trying to find themselves. Unless you’re a stunningly beautiful girl or a star athlete guy, to become popular in the treacherous hallways of high school requires strict fidelity to the moving target of what’s cool. If you were popular in high school, you probably took the easy path of conformity rather than the hard path of self-discovery. Or at least that’s my sense of what this litmus test implies.

All seem relatively reasonable, though I see myself as the exception to the first two. I happen to plan my trips more than most but I am also quite adaptable, or so I think. I’m not keen on sharing food at a meal because once a plate of food arrives I’m firmly focused on getting the job done sin ayuda. Yet I still see myself as highly experimental and appreciative of new experience.

It does seem generally true that popularity in high school is negatively correlated with intelligence and independent thinking. As far as I can tell, the only girls who are popular in high school are either really attractive or backstabbing mean girls. However, high school popularity for both genders seems positively correlated with networking and communication skills.

The comments in my post on litmus tests three years ago had some interesting other examples.

25 Responses to Three More Litmus Tests

  1. Kevin Burke says:

    I also have just started mentioning thought-provoking topics in conversation, or stuff I’m interested in, and then evaluating whether people immediately change the subject, provide an interesting response or continue talking about the same kind of thing. Examples in no particular order:

    – whether people should become more cynical as they get older
    – saying “ever notice how everyone has to ask your name and where you’re from” and then asking whether you’d rather fly or be invisible or some other question
    – what questions to ask to get the most interesting conversations
    – why people drink for fun, instead of go bowling
    – whether menus are better with more items or fewer, and what’s the best strategy to pick the best item on the menu

  2. Ted says:

    High school is not as treacherous as you imply. There are many decent intelligent people who are popular in high school. I actually believe popularity in high school is positively correlated with intelligence.

    I went to a large, public, richer than average high school.

  3. Justin Wehr says:

    I love these things. Related to your second test, I heard somewhere that the question that can most accurately predict your moral foundations (link to faculty.virginia.edu) is, When you go out to eat, do you prefer to try new restaurants, or do you prefer to stick with ones that you know are good? The question is a proxy for openness to experience, and the more open to experience you are, the more likely you are to posses the moral foundations that are typical of a liberal.

    However, going along with the exceptions you mentioned at the end of the post, I am skeptical of the general applicability of litmus tests across domains. The reason is that I think it’s more likely to be true that someone will exercise a penchant for experimentation in one domain *because they happened to have done so before* than that someone possesses the penchant for experimentation as some sort of innate quality. In other words, I believe our identity is deceivingly random, based not on innate qualities that apply across domains but on domain-specific things we have done before.

  4. LP says:

    Re: #3 – regardless of the content of someone’s answer, is it delivered in a defensive tone? I’ve encountered this from people on both sides of the high-school-popularity divide, and I’m always interested in whether someone is still hung up on what happened in high school.

  5. Krishna says:

    The test questions may have to be customized if it’s intended to be used across culturally diverse samples. Example, Chinese normally share their food from the same bowl, and that’s not enough to conclude they are open to experiments. Elsewhere it is bad manners.

  6. Shefaly says:

    Ted: +1 on that working hypothesis re correlation with intelligence of both academic and social kinds. The former kind makes a child popular with one’s teachers, and the latter kind with one’s peers.

  7. Shefaly says:

    Ben: Those who do not equate/ mistake solitude with/ for loneliness are happy eating alone at restaurants. Eating alone can be – and often is – an amusing, efficient, useful thing to experience. I also think that people who enjoy eating alone in a restaurant are truly not bothered what people think because it doesn’t bother them that others might be thinking of them as pathetic Jack-no-mates.

    Of course, I am most amused by those who always seek company. If they find their own company so unbearable, how can they inflict it on others? :-)

  8. Shefaly says:

    LP: Would “I don’t know” a defensive answer? :-) Because I find that most well-adjusted adults do not care about high school unless theirs was particularly horrid.

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    Agreed. That was the point I was actually trying to make…

  10. Dave Carlson says:

    The first one is good, the second one is brilliant (as is Shefaly’s comment on it), and the third needs a bit of fine tuning, but I like the direction it’s going.

    I think the question needs to be something that kind of pulls the important parts of the answer out of them, so that the “networking and communication” side gets filtered out. I think: “Did you fit into a particular crowd in high school?” is better.

    People go through several metamorphoses in high school too, but usually their answer will highlight the points you need to know.

  11. LP says:

    Right, the key phrase there is ‘well-adjusted’. I find that people who still feel judged based on how popular or unpopular they were in high school usually aren’t. On the other hand, ‘I don’t know’ is a suspicious answer, because any relatively well-socialized person will at least have been aware of their social standing in high school, high or low – I would only expect ‘I don’t know’ to be an honest answer when coming from someone with, for instance, Asperger’s.

  12. Change says:

    Like some of the readers said, I don’t see why we should be hung up about our high school status. Also not every school in the world has the same culture as an American one. I went to a high school in India where popularity has a direct correlation with performance on exams and supposed intelligence.

    I have an American friend who’s getting his PhD in nanotechnology in about a month who was hugely popular in high school and college (I got to know him in grad school in the US). Sort of an exception on the popularity vs. intelligence curve, huh?

    On the topic of being alone, when people answer they are OK with it, they probably mean they are OK with it to a certain degree. They draw the imaginary line somewhere (may not be exactly where you draw it).

    Coming to the topic of caring about what strangers think: that varies too. I care about what others think of me. But I have dined alone happily in restaurants several times. I guess I care about what people think of me in other aspects (just not that much about the hanging-out-alone part). However I don’t go to bars alone. I just don’t like being hit on. Everyone knows a single woman in a bar is just asking for it.

  13. #2 is wrong. I’m open to experimentation in general, but I don’t like trying food off other people’s plates. It’s about boundaries, not open-mindedness.

    #3 might have some truth to it, but it goes against my memory of high school (and I wasn’t one of the most popular kids). A couple things. First, the most popular kids didn’t necessarily get that way because of rigid conformity. They got that way through charisma and confidence. They may still have their weird idiosyncrasies. For another thing, since they’re probably some of the most confident people in the school, they’ll often have the confidence to break from the norm. This is part of the luxury of being super-popular: you get to lead in defining what’s acceptable instead of going along with what everyone else does. (I went to a public high school with thousands of students.)

  14. Mark says:

    What was the last book you finished? Do you own a Kindle?

  15. Ben Casnocha says:

    Will blog, and yes I own a kindle.

  16. Mr. E says:

    I was staggeringly popular in high school. I suspect this particular litmus test isn’t as useful as you might like it to be.

    Smarter than the average bear too – 1400 SAT pre dumbdown and didn’t even know those study courses existed.

    Never graduated college, dropped out of Physics because it was filled with geeks to play in a band. I guess I was like Homer at the Star Trek convention “I can’t believe that Star Trek convention was filled with geeks!”

    Currently making top 5% money despite no degree in corporate job where others have MBAs, and in the process of starting my own business.

    Never grokked the idea that making money is useful until about 10 years ago and now finally understand that running a successful business is a sacred and holy thing.

    Being popular in high school is one thing. Being really, really popular – like I was – is another.

    I actually forced myself to become less popular after I graduated and went to school, because I can turn on the Charisma any time and it is hugely unfair to others, and because 2nd tier popular people went into the greek system which repulsed me on the whole “lots of people really liking me” idea for a few years.

    My litmus tests:

    1. actually laughing at others misfortunes or pain with no remorse? Nope.

    2. High interest in sports? Nope.

    3. Are they excited about their day to day life? Being able to talk about your day to day work in a compelling manner is a sign that you like to be alive and actually appreciate the gift.

  17. Franziska says:

    Shefaly, those are the people who sit/eat together in a restaurant but have nothing to say to each other because it’s far more interesting to listen to what the people on the neighbouring table have to say ;-)

  18. Franziska says:

    I couldn’t care less if someone went to a particular school or even finished school or university or if they were popular at school. Maybe it’s an age thing but for me it’s more important what people do now for a living and if they actually love what they are doing and more importantly, they love what they are doing regardless of what they earn. I guess I’m just not money orientated or I have different priorities in life.

  19. SThomps says:

    Wonderfully said. This is exactly the right attitude to have.

  20. SThomps says:

    My first litmus test:

    1. Is the person humble?

    By the way, high interest in sports has nothing to do with intelligence.

  21. john says:

    I think the being popular in high school is most strongly linked to self-confidence rather than conformity, at least it is for boys. Girls is much more difficult to say.

  22. Julia says:

    Honestly, I think the high school popularity question is kind of boring. If anything, I’d prefer a question geared toward how someone has changed since high school.

    One of my litmus tests is what the person does if I don’t say anything to carry the conversation. If there’s a silence, will the person ask me a question, start to tell a story, draw out the silence, surprise me by doing something else…? Will the person give a monologue without noticing that the conversation has become one-sided? In part, I try to do this to remind myself to listen more than I talk, so I don’t mean that I just throw an awkward, silent test at someone. If I’m with a quiet person, waiting for them to fill a silence can be an especially interesting way of drawing the person out and continuing the conversation on their terms.

    In terms of sizing up another person quickly, I’m most interested signs of someone treats other people. I don’t have hacks for this, but I pay close attention when certain topics arise. For example, how do does the person talk about people who aren’t present? Are they respectful when talking about people they don’t especially like? Do they enjoy telling negative stories about other people? (If someone who I’ve just met tells me in detail about someone they dislike and seems to get energy from telling the story, I consider it a warning sign.)

    Also, I’m often more interested in how people say things than what they’re saying. Do they see things in black and white terms, or do they have nuanced opinions? Do they seem excited about what they’re talking about, or do they seem pleased by how impressive what they’re saying makes them sound? Are they responding to other people or trying to one-up them?

    By the way, the last few comments on the last litmus test post are hilarious.

  23. Fithappypro says:

    As a fitness professional, I interact with a ton of people on a regular basis and I can assure you that it is fundamentally more important to find a topic of connection, than to find questions that give you answers to a personality.

    Connection, spurs conversation that will eventually lead to a far deeper understanding of an individual, but that individual has to be willing to divulge information.

    That’s my first and perhaps only litmus test. If this person is interesting, I should be able to find a topic of interest in a short amount of time.

    As you point out yourself, the limitations of this approach would run the risk of reading too much into a person too quickly. There is also something to be said for the ‘Blink’ approach to feeling a person out, sometimes you need to go with your gut feeling too.

  24. Arti says:

    That’s brilliant, Shefaly. Thanks for the laugh.

  25. Arti says:

    I’d like to add a litmus test that I use, usually after I’ve established a baseline for someone and want to understand how his/her brain works. I ask them about the influence of religion / fate / karma in their lives. Their response usually helps me identify pretty clearly the ones who have given no thought and are content with merely inheriting their belief system, and those who are engaged in understanding what their belief system is, and why they believe in it.

    Some folks have merely inherited their beliefs and usually respond with a “What about them?” or “I don’t go to “. Others declare they don’t believe in religion, then proceed to tell me that they have an irrational fear of taking off a religious ring / talisman. Then there are those that give me a more nuanced response and are able to explain their thinking clearly – most importantly identifying where they agree and disagree with a particular belief system.

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