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Q&A: Sam Gosling, psychologist, on what our stuff says about us

Q&A: Sam Gosling, psychologist, on what our stuff says about us

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How much can we tell about a person from just looking at their bedroom or office? Psychologist Sam Gosling says quite a lot -- except for one personality trait.

Want to really get to know someone? Snoop through their shelves, closets, drawers. When you are face to face with another for just five minutes you see one side of their personality, but spend that same five minutes scanning their photos and posts tacked to the fridge or items in their medicine cabinet and you'll receive a more honest picture of who they really are. This is what Sam Gosling, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, has found in his research.

Gosling and his team went into people's offices, bedrooms, Facebook profiles and attempted to predict what those people might be like. Then those predictions were measured against the true personalities. And by "personality" Gosling means an individual's scores on five personality traits known as: openness (curiosity, creativity); conscientiousness (self-disciplined, task-oriented); neuroticism (i.e., the Woody Allen effect); extraversion (social, outgoing) and agreeableness (cooperative, trusting.)

He found that some traits were easier to predict than others and some stereotypes were highly influential in skewing results.

His research is covered in his popular science book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. We caught up with Gosling to ask him about just what we can accurately (and not so accurately) predict from inspecting personal spaces.

SmartPlanet: How did you become interested in studying people's belongings?

Sam Gosling: Well it started from a frustration with psychological research. As psychologists we want to measure people's behavior, but how do we do that? My advisor would follow people around with a video camera all day, but that was not all that practical. What we realized however is that much of people's behavior leaves a trace in the environment. Just like Sherlock Holmes looks at one's environment for clues about a mystery, I thought why couldn't we do that for everyday personalities?

And what was one clue that you initially thought might tell us something about one's personality?

Well I had this idea, before I started the research, of the parking ticket strewn on the floor. And how that one thing tells you about a whole sequence of events that you can put together to try and make a judgment about somebody. We call this sort of thing behavioral residue. The very fact that they have a parking ticket strewn on the floor tells you something about them.

And once I started to think about spaces and look at spaces it occurred to me that they communicated information in other ways too.

Like what?

People use their space as an identity claim. Spaces hold deliberate statements about their attitudes and values and goals that they want to project to others, just like people use bumper stickers. In their spaces people put up things that are important to them culturally and personally. Which are there to send a signal to others.

How did you go about doing these studies? I know you sent teams into people's homes who made detailed observations.

All the studies have the same design. You have the "thing" you are observing, whether that be the person's home, their office, their web site, their Facebook page, their music collection. We got [teams] of observers to just look at those things alone and try and think what the owner or occupant is like.

So I sent [these] teams into people's bedrooms and had them look around at everything in the room and then had them fill out a personality questionnaire. This was one source of information.

Then we found out what the person was really like.

How?

We gave the occupant a self-report questionnaire. And we also got two of their friends to complete the questionnaire as well.

And [then] we sent [a separate] team in to try and code all of the objective features of the space. So is the place disorganized? Is it clean or dirty? Is it colorful?

And with these three categories of information we can see if 1) Are people accurate in judging what other people are like and then 2) What cues are associated with judgments and what cues are associated with what people are really like.

What did you find in terms of cues associated with any judgments and cues associated with accurate judgments?

It varied quite a bit. We did find that in general the teams used the cues that wound up being accurately diagnostic of what people were really like.

Can you give us some examples? I know you measured people in terms of the big five personality traits -- openness, agreeableness, neuroticism, extroversion and conscientiousness.

The things that are really diagnostic are whether someone is high on conscientiousness, which is attributed to those who think before they act. They engage in tasks, they are work-focused, they tend to meet deadlines. You know, the sort who tend not to get parking tickets.

So those sorts of people have spaces as you would expect. They are organized, clean, they have spare supplies, their books are organized. And indeed, people who have spaces like that are correctly judged to be conscientious.

What else could be accurately predicted?

And another example is the trait of openness. People who score high on this trait are those who like to try new things; they like uncertainty. Those that score low tend towards the traditional and conventional. So people high on openness tend to have spaces that are distinctive and unusual. It's not usually a specific item, but rather the way the place is laid out. For instance you might see something very unusual like a bed made out of an old canoe. So this was another trait where the cues people used to form impressions were accurate in judging that person's personality.

What traits could not be accurately judged from looking at spaces?

One of the big mistakes the teams would make is to use the cues like organization and cleanliness to predict if a person was high on the trait of agreeableness. Meaning that a person is nice, kind, sympathetic.

So the judges would associate cleanliness with being a nice person?

Yes.

Is it completely incorrect, as in is the opposite is true:  That a clean place means the person is an angry or uptight person?

No, there is no relationship at all. In fact agreeableness was one of the hardest traits to detect by looking at people's spaces.

Do you have any thoughts as to why?

Most of the things related to agreeableness are social, like talking with others. So agreeableness doesn't really leave a trace in the world. It's more ephemeral.

What about the rest of the big five traits, like neuroticism (aka the Woody Allen personality type) and extroversion?

Neuroticism was one of the interesting ones because the judges were pretty accurate in predicting this trait, but the reason they were accurate was because they were using a stereotype that just happened to be true. As opposed to seeing specific cues that predicted neuroticism. So for example, the teams would use the stereotype that women are higher on neuroticism than men--meaning that women tend to be more anxious and worry more. And indeed in our studies women were higher on neuroticism than men.

But what the analysis suggests is that the judges are going into a space, and they are thinking, "Oh this space belongs to a woman." And their ratings were influenced by the stereotype that women are higher on neuroticism. Because women typically are higher, it promoted the accuracy of such a judgment.

Were there cases where a stereotype turned out not to be true?

Yes. There is also the stereotype that women tend to be nicer [also known as the trait of agreeableness] than men. Turns out in our sample that this was not true.  Women were not higher on agreeableness than men. But the judges rated women to be higher on agreeableness as opposed to men. So this was a case of an incorrect stereotype impeding the ability to predict personality based on spaces.

What surprised you most about these studies?

Well looking back it might seem obvious that we can predict people's personalities based on their spaces.

In fact when I give talks I'm very careful not to give away my findings at the beginning because most people will react with, "Duh, of course." But when I ask people to vote on what traits they think they can predict based on people's spaces, they really have no idea. So really the biggest surprise is that you can pick up so much information from an environment. Especially for openness, which was the most accurately judged trait.

Have you found that people are generally OK with how they are perceived based on their space?

It's very hard for people to hide their true self or to be something they are not. A lot is based on how you see the world. We tend to think of personality as how people behave, but it's more than how people behave -- it's how they see the world too. One person might see a mess where another person doesn't even see it, they never even notice it. And this is tied into how they keep their space.

And we've found that people want to be seen as they are. Research has shown that people are happier and more productive when they can be seen as they see themselves.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure