Sam Gosling / UT-Austin
These two dorm rooms reveal strikingly different personalities. "You could look at
either and be horrified," University of Texas psychologist Sam Gosling jokes.
Your personality is on display in all the stuff you leave behind, but sometimes it takes a skilled "snoopologist" to know what to look for.
Sam Gosling might be considered such a man. Actually, he's a psychology professor at the University of Texas in Austin, but he has delved deeply into snoopology in his research as well as in a book titled "Snoop." Gosling discussed his findings during the annual CASW New Horizons in Science meeting, which wrapped up today in Austin.
"What are the processes by which personality gets translated into physical elements in your space?" Gosling asked. That key question can spawn others: How do you define personality, anyway? Can you really separate personality from the person?
Gosling and his colleagues started out with five dimensions used to measure personality, each represented by a well-known character:
- Openness to experience: A sense of imagination, experimentation and creativity, exemplified by Leonardo da Vinci.
- Conscientiousness: A sense of order, duty, deliberation and self-discipline, represented by RoboCop ("half-man, half-machine, all cop"). "These are the people you want in the air traffic control tower," Gosling said.
- Extraversion: Sociability, assertiveness, a sense of activity. Gosling associates this with Eddie Murphy in "Beverly Hills Cop."
- Agreeableness: Trust, nurturance, kindness and cooperation. Think of Mister Rogers rather than, say, Simon Cowell from "American Idol."
- Neuroticism: Anxiety, depression, moodiness, vulnerability to stress. Woody Allen's screen persona provides the perfect example, and the Dude from "The Big Lebowski" provides the perfect antidote.
Armed with these scales, Gosling and his collaborators struck out to assess the personalities of a wide variety of college students, professionals and others - as well as their living spaces, music playlists and online hangouts. One team of researchers set up interviews with each experimental subjects, as well as two people who knew the subject well. Another team rated their impressions of the "stuff" left behind by each subject.
The telltale stuff includes objects that make identity claims - posters of rock stars on your bedroom wall, for instance, or the signs posted on your door. "Doors are a great place to look for identity claims," Gosling said.
Other tip-offs have to do with making you feel a certain way: family photos propped up on your desk, a personal memento on your bookshelf, even the songs you keep on your music player (Shakira or Miles Davis?). And still others are what Gosling calls "behavioral residue": the books on your bookshelves, the papers lying around your study, the clothes you hang neatly in your closet or leave lying on the floor.
When all the inspections and the interviews were done, the researchers looked for correlations between the in-person personality ratings and the snoopological information. It turned out that there's not exactly a "magic bullet" for linking your personality to your stuff, but that different types of stuff are good for gauging different personality traits.
For example, Facebook pages reveal a lot about how extroverted a person is, but are no good for gauging how neurotic that person is in face-to-face interactions. The office environment is a good indicator of how open an employee might be to new experiences, but rates a big fat zero when it comes to gauging that employee's agreeableness.
The procedure has potential pitfalls. "Be very wary of distinctive objects," Gosling cautioned. "They're often misleading."
For example, Gosling recalled checking into one dorm room that suggested its occupant was nearly as conscientious as RoboCop - except for the box on the floor that contained a bong and other drug paraphernalia. That earned the occupant a somewhat wilder rating than she otherwise would have had.
But when she was questioned about the box, she explained that she was merely looking after those items - conscientiously - for a friend who was in the midst of a round-the-world trip. "It did tell you about her," Gosling said.
This may sound like little more than a parlor game, but Gosling said snoopology was already being put to use by Austin architect Christopher Travis, who uses psychological exercises to help clients "Discover Your True Home!" And it made me wonder whether it's possible to engage in reverse snoopology - for example, redecorating your bedroom or your Facebook page to spice up your real life.
Gosling has found that merely changing your stuff usually doesn't work as a strategy to change your life. He acknowledged that when employees move into new offices, they may try to get themselves better-organized or change their work persona - but eventually, the employees' stuff comes to reflect their real life, rather than vice versa.
The same goes for people who attempt a virtual makeover on Facebook or the Web, Gosling told me. "They may want to do that, but if that's what they're doing, they're not really successful," he said.
In fact, Facebook pages tend to be more accurate indicators of personality traits than personal Web pages, Gosling said. Because access to your Facebook profile is limited to your "friends," those friends can raise a virtual eyebrow in your direction if you suddenly switch from a businesslike profile picture to a party-girl snapshot.
"That's why people trust Facebook so much - because there's that accountability," Gosling told me.
What do you think? Does your stuff reflect who you are? Do you change your stuff when you take on a new persona? (For example, the bumper sticker I recently slapped onto my VW bumper reads "Stand Up for the Little Guy, Let Pluto Be a Planet.") Express yourself in the comment section below.
The New Horizons in Science seminar is presented annually by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. I've been on CASW's board for several years, and this year I'm serving as the organization's treasurer.