Web edition: October 19, 2009
If you have a burning interest in getting to know someone better, maybe you should snoop. You won’t have to look too hard. University of Texas at Austin psychologist Sam Gosling says the books, photos, music playlists, calendars and sports equipment that litter people’s home, offices and even their websites all contribute to the bigger picture of who they really are.
Gosling and his students are researching the way people reveal who they are through their intimate surrounding and their stuff. In their quest, the researchers search bedrooms, bathrooms and office desks looking for three basic types of clues to the occupant’s personality. The first group of clues is what Gosling calls “identity claims,” and consists of posters, photos and other times that make a symbolic statement or are meant to project a specific image. Sometimes these items provide insight into a person’s interests, but other times they say more about what people want others to think of them as opposed to what they're actually like, Gosling said.
Other items, such as music, books and DVDs, are often used as “feeling regulators” to help people mange their emotions and thoughts These feeling regulators can provide important clues to what a person is really like. Even the traces left behind as a result of everyday actions can reveal who you are. Gosling points to piles of garbage, food wrappers and notebooks, calling this “behavioral residue.” Together, these types of clues reveal a person’s pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving, and are consistent over time.
Gosling and his crew use this information to rate people on five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Architects are using the information to help design homes where people can re-create a feeling of comfort and well being.
So where would Gosling look if limited to only one place? That would be a person’s website. People will tell you explicitly what they’re like, and there are so few restrictions to what can be put online, he said.
“If you live in a tiny apartment in New York, you can’t display your love of hang gliding, but you can do that on a website.”