Interview with Sam Gosling

Sam Gosling
Photograph by Marsha Miller

A decade of research by this University of Texas at Austin psychology prof has led to new ways of understanding the relationship between individuals and the spaces they inhabit, as he now reveals with Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You.

Snoop posits that our things open a window onto our inner selves. Didn’t we already know that?

Yes, but we didn’t know what you can learn. My research team went into bedrooms or offices and recorded their impressions in standard personality tests. We then compared what they thought about the occupants with what the occupants thought about themselves and what their friends thought about them.

And how did your team’s analyses match up?

It depends on where you look. Bedrooms reflect traits like openness to experiences, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Office spaces tend to reveal information about openness, and to a lesser extent conscientiousness, and extraversion. Facebook profiles are most revealing of extraversion and openness. In short, different contexts reveal different traits.

What do you foresee as practical applications -- maybe to help criminal forensic investigations or psychoanalysis?

Every day we are faced with the tasks of negotiating our social worlds. Who would make a good employee, who would be a good friend or date? This means getting a good read on others—snooping can help us in that task because it teaches us which cues to trust and which ones to ignore. For example, our research shows that people use clues like how tidy and organized a space is to form impressions of how nice a person is, even though these attributes are in fact completely unrelated to niceness. So a snooper would learn to discount the clues that lead others astray. Also, by understanding the connections between people and their places we can design spaces to help people live more productive satisfying lives.

A great example of this is the work being done by Christopher Travis, whose architecture firm Truehome uses the psychological connections between people and places to design spaces that meet people’s needs. For example, Travis found that one client had a deeply rooted need to feel validated by surrounding himself with the evidence of his accomplishments; so Travis made sure the house included features [like] plenty of windows and porches from which the client could survey his magnificent domain; that fed this psychological need. Travis' work is not really psychoanalytic but it does help people uncover the deep connections between them and their spaces. I suppose some of this work could be applied to forensic investigations but my focus has been on ordinary everyday behavior, not criminal behavior.

What about privacy issues? It's a short reach from researchers "snooping" with permission to corporations and governments "spying."

All of our research is done with the consent of the participants (indeed, most participants are positively eager to find out what people think about them). My studies really focus on how you can sharpen your everyday perception skills to improve the impressions you form of others and to be aware of the impressions others might be forming about you.

What sparked your interest in the correlation between personal possessions and personality?

One of my mentors in graduate school, Kenneth Craik, had always emphasized that anything a person does potentially provides information about what that person is like. I was serving as a teaching assistant for Craik's class on personality assessment in which the students had created a scale to measure how orderly and organized a person was, and we wanted to test whether the scale worked. So I thought, let's go and see if people who score high on the scale have tidier rooms than people who score low. As part of the class project we looked at just a few rooms but as soon we started looking at rooms, and as soon as I started thinking more extensively about living and working spaces, I realized that there was a wealth of information there, if only it could be tapped.

Did you let your research team study your office and home (and what were their conclusions)?

Before the study began, we needed to train the research team using rooms that would not be part of the study. So I decided to offer my own room but without telling the team it was mine. I never looked at how they rated my personality but the experience did teach me a lesson about the rating process. I had followed the usual precautions, covering photos of me and any sign of my name. When the team had finished their assessment, a couple of male judges took me aside and said they had realized it was my room. I asked them how they figured it out. They said they knew what kind of car I drove and they saw manuals for that car on the bookshelf. A few minutes later, a couple of female judges took me aside and said that they, too, knew it was my room. Again, I asked how they had figured it out. They said they recognized my clothing on the floor. So the male and female judges each used their own knowledge bases to arrive at the same conclusion. This was my first lesson in the crucial role played by expertise in snooping. That is, not all judges are created equal—some people are particularly good judges of certain kinds of information.

What kind of feedback have you received?

In a field where so much of the research involves relating one personality questionnaire to another, some of my colleagues find it quite refreshing to see someone go out and collect real data from the real world!

And does the research continue?

Yes. By construing "environments" very broadly, we have been able to extend the ideas from physical spaces (like bedrooms and offices) to aural spaces (like your favorite music), virtual spaces (like Web sites and Facebook profiles), and even to domains like clothing. We have found that our ideas generally translate easily from one context to another, although sometimes

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