'What Your Stuff Says About You'

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Author Sam Gosling talks about how he can determine a person's personality by looking at their possessions. His new book is called, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The framed items on the wall of my office include my FCC third-class radio telephone operator's license from 1973 and the New York Times crossword puzzle from the day my name was used as a clue. There's a baseball on my desk, not signed or anything, just a baseball. Some toys sit on top of the speaker, a beach chair with a life preserver, a double-decker London bus, and a cork board has family pictures, John F. Kennedy behind the wheel of PT109, and a postcard of Giant's Stadium in New Jersey. Sam Gosling, are those few things enough to tell you anything about what kind of person I am?

Dr. SAM GOSLING (Psychology, University of Texas; Author,"Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You"): Yeah, they certainly could tell us a lot. There's a lot of information, a lot of it not so obvious but there's a lot of information in places like people's personal spaces, their offices or their living spaces.

CONAN: And not just what they are, but the way they're arranged. For example, if the family pictures look out to the guest in the office or inward to the person who occupies it.

Dr. GOSLING: Yeah. It's really crucial to combine not only what they are, but how they've been placed. Because how they've been placed gives us good information on the psychological function that they serve, so if we have photos of say our family and our beautiful spouse facing us, that shows it's for our own benefit.

It's what you might call a social snack, something we can snack on to make ourselves feel better over the day. If it's turned the other way, then it's more for the benefit of others, which doesn't mean it's disingenuous. It may not be trying to pull the wool over people's eyes but it informs the function that that photo serves.

CONAN: Sam Gosling studies personality by looking at stuff. Stuff in offices, bedrooms, cars and bathrooms. What's there and how it's arranged can provide clues about who we are and what's important to us. So we want you to call or email us and describe the room or the car you're in right now. What's on the wall or the desk, the videos and the CDs, the bumper stickers, your radio presets. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog talk at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later on in the show, the romance and monotony involved in real archeology. But first, Sam Gosling. He's an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book is called "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You," and he joins us today from the studios of member station KUT in Austin. Thanks very much for coming in.

Dr. GOSLING: Pleasure.

CONAN: And your book is called "Snoop," because that's what you propose to teach us what to do.

Dr. GOSLING: Yeah. Snooping around people's places, and I should say that I construe "places" very, very broadly. Not only our physical environments but our oral environments, too, such as our music collections, our virtual environments like our personal home pages or our Facebook profile. So if people who want to call in want to talk more broadly about spaces, that would be fun, too.

CONAN: And of course, to figure out what personality type - what stuff tells you about you, you have to know what personality types are to begin with. Introvert, extrovert are two that I guess everybody knows about.

Dr. GOSLING: That's right. And there are a number of ways of thinking about personality. You can think about personality traits, which is what most research has done on it, and within that domain there's the system known as the "Big Five," or the "five-factor framework," which talks about these different traits. As you say, introversion-extroversion is the main one, but there are other important ones, too.

CONAN: And how did you get interested in this? Are you a natural born snoop?

Dr. GOSLING: Well, I think we're all natural born snoops. I mean, some of us are more curious than others. Some of us will open the medicine cabinet when we go to a party and some of us won't. But I think we all do because it is crucial. If you think, who are the people - what is the element of the environment that's most important to us in terms of how well we get on in terms of professional lives and personal lives? It's other people. So I think we're naturally attuned to picking up whatever information is out there, and there is a lot of information out there in people's spaces. So I think we all do it.

CONAN: And so we size people up as soon as we see them, as soon as we shake their hand, for example.

Dr. GOSLING: Yeah, as soon as we shake their hand. And you know, the handshaking has been part of etiquette books for years and years and years, but it was only recently that it was really subjected to a really rigorous study. There was a study done by Bill Chaplain in 2000 which looked at exactly that. It looked at what can you learn about someone from a handshake.

CONAN: And sometimes, it's interesting, you can learn something about it but you can also come to a conclusion that's easily wrong.

Dr. GOSLING: Right. That's the point, yes. For example, taking the example of handshaking, if somebody grips your hand firmly and looks you in the eye and smiles as they're doing it, then we form an overall positive impression of them. We form all kinds of positive things. Yet it turns out that the handshaking firmness is only a clue to some traits. So we are going beyond the evidence. And so, it's really important to know which are valid clues and which ones are misleading.

CONAN: And in the clip of tape that we heard at the beginning of the program and throughout your book, you use the example of Agatha Christie's great detective, Hercule Poirot.

Dr. GOSLING: That's right, because it's really important - you know, if I had one wish, one wish in the world, it would be that one clue told you something about a person. If you have a stuffed teddy on your bed, it meant something, you know. But the world is more complicated than that. So unfortunately, it doesn't work like that because there are many reasons why we might have, say, a stuffed animal on our bed or something like that. And so really, you can't use a code book approach where x means y.

What you have to do is you have to build up a picture piece-by-piece, and sometimes you only have a very little piece and you have to hold your view very tentatively. But that will guide your search for more information.

CONAN: So that postcard of Giants Stadium, well, it could tell you that I'm a Giants fan, which is true, but it could also tell you that I grew up in New Jersey.

Dr. GOSLING: It could, or it might have sentimental meaning. Who is it from? Is it from somebody important? And so in order to resolve that what we would do is we would look for other clues. So the baseball there would begin to resolve the meaning of the postcard itself.

We might also see, well, these other items, the crossword puzzle, these other things which might modify the meaning of that, which help us resolve, OK, so maybe recognition is important. We learn that you're somewhat sentimental. And that helps us clarify the meaning of each clue.

CONAN: Somewhat, all right. I'll bite for somewhat sentimental. Anyway, let's see if we can get some callers in on this conversation. We're talking with Sam Gosling about his new book "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You." Erin, Erin is calling us from Santa Rosa in California.

ERIN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: And where are you, Erin?

ERIN: I'm driving around beautiful Sonoma County on this foggy day.

CONAN: And what is it in your car that you've sort of ornamented your car with?

ERIN: I have, well, the reason I was calling is because when you said that on air I started laughing because I have a temporary tattoo of a white tiger in my cup holder, and I have a parrot pen right next to that, very colorful, and some very random things. And I just started laughing when I heard that because you know, what does that say about me?

CONAN: And other than the NPR station, what are the presets on your radio?

ERIN: Well, other local public radio stations, and that's pretty much it. And then just lots of CDs.

CONAN: And can you give us a couple of titles?

ERIN: Of some of the CDs? Well, I've been really into - I listen to a lot of M.I.A., her album, her newest album is very awesome. And then I have a lot of - I have Talking Heads' "Little Creatures," that's kind of one of my favorites that I resort back to over and over again. And what else do I have? I have Bjork, I have Blonde Redhead...

CONAN: Sam Gosling...

ERIN: I have hundreds, hundreds.

CONAN: Hundreds of CDs. So, Sam Gosling, music, you say, is really, really revealing.

Dr. GOSLING: It can be very revealing, yeah, because it's such a broad palace. There's so many things we can do. We can look at the individual preferences for certain traits which tells us something, but we can also look at the themes there. So is there a lot of vocal music? Is there a very wide variety of music? And so on. And it's important because if you think, many of our activities require that we create an environment. So if you really want to concentrate, you go to a library or a quiet place. You don't go to a nightclub. And the thing about music is you can change what a space is like very, very quickly just by playing something. And in the case of Erin's music, what I noticed was it was very broad and you know, a wide variety of items.

CONAN: Eclectic.

Dr. GOSLING: Eclectic. Very eclectic. And that's a crucial clue, and especially when we learn that she has lots of talk stations and NPR stations on her radio. So we would combine those sorts of things. That would help clarify the meaning of it to say she's, you know, this would suggest that she is an intellectual, broad-minded sort of person.

You know, I'd like to get - what's really important is sometimes this will direct our questioning. So we'd like to learn more about that tiger. Why is that tiger important? Sometimes what's important is we'll see a clue and even if we don't know what that clue means, what it's really important to is it opens a gateway, it opens a gateway to ask questions that we might otherwise not have asked. So we can ask about that tiger, why, of the million things that you could have there, why has that stayed there? And try and dig a bit deeper.

CONAN: So if we really wanted to know Erin, that's the question we would ask. So, Erin?

ERIN: My boyfriend bought it for me at the pharmacy, actually.

Dr. GOSLING: OK.

CONAN: OK.

Dr. GOSLING: So we're learning the sentimental, you know...

CONAN: And we're also learning, Erin, that you spend a lot of time in your car.

ERIN: I do. I do. I'm a college student who is always going back and forth. I also have a UC-Berkeley sticker on my car.

CONAN: That would have been a big clue, too.

ERIN: Yeah, yeah. I didn't want to give too much away. I was trying to keep some, you know.

CONAN: Oh, yeah. Keep that air of mystery.

ERIN: Yes, exactly. Well, thank you.

Dr. GOSLING: You know, I'd like to see where the tattoo went because tattoos are very interesting. Because that's one of these forms of often what I call an "identity statement." This is where you make claims to others. Of course, it depends where it is but if you put it in a public place for others to see. You know, we talked earlier about the photos in the office of whether it's facing yourself or facing others. Tattoos are another great way of doing that. And of course, a tattoo is a far bigger commitment than just putting up a photo on your desk.

CONAN: Erin - in Erin's case I think it was a temporary tattoo.

Dr. GOSLING: Right, exactly. So that would tell us something, too.

CONAN: Well, maybe the boyfriend's on the way out, you never know.

Dr. GOSLING: Right.

CONAN: Or maybe she - see, it's easy to read stuff into this and boy, is it easy to be wrong.

Dr. GOSLING: Right, absolutely. It's easy to jump to wrong conclusions. There are a lot of errors to make there. The first, of course, is trying to make too much of any single clue because - when the clues that stand out, that's one of the easy mistakes to make is that our attention is automatically drawn to things that stand out. And those are the ones we have to be really careful with.

CONAN: We are talking with Sam Gosling, author of the new book "Snoop: What your stuff says about you." More on the book in a moment, including a chapter that defends stereotypes. We'll get to that, and we want to find out what your stuff says about you. Where are you? What decorations, ornaments, have you added to your car, your bedroom, your living room, wherever you're listening to the program? 800-989-8255. Send us email, too. The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Later in the hour, what a real-life archeologist does and how much it might relate to the fictional life of Indiana Jones. But first, we're talking about what our stuff, our posters, our photos, our CDs and videos, what all of it says about who we are. Sam Gosling makes a living in part by judging personalities based on the stuff we keep and how we arrange it. His book is called "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You." You can read an excerpt from the book at npr.org/talk, and if you'd like to give it a try, take a look at the stuff around you right now. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Or zap us an email, talk@npr.org.

And Sam Gosling, we mentioned stereotypes. There's an experiment you describe in the book where people are - pictures are taken of drivers and their cars separately, and people are asked to see which driver goes with which car. And in that context, you say, well, stereotypes are useful. Older people tend to have a little more money so maybe the more expensive car belongs to them.

Dr. GOSLING: Yeah, absolutely. So stereotypes typically are based on something. They can lead us astray, too. So what I recommend is if you know nothing, if you know nothing to begin to use stereotypes as an initial armature on which to base your judgment, and then you can begin to dress it up more finely with specific clues. In the case of the cars, they were making stereotypes and that that helped them to a certain extent. We found people using stereotypes in bedrooms, too, and in some cases it helped, in some cases it hurt.

CONAN: Give us an example of each.

Dr. GOSLING: OK. So for example, that there's a stereotype in terms of personality that women are higher on a couple of these big five traits I talked about. One of these is known as agreeableness, if you want to think of it as the - sort of the "Mr. Roger's" factor. This is people who are nice, kind, sympathetic, and so on. So the stereotype is that women are higher on that.

And the other stereotype is that women are higher on the trait of what's known as neuroticism, sort of "Woody Allen" factor. That is, they're more easily stressed, they're more emotional, they're more moody and so on. So there are these stereotypes about women. And it was true that when our judges went into rooms, they judged those rooms they believed they belonged to females - and they almost always got it right - they judged those rooms to be higher on agreeableness and higher on neuroticism.

However, it turns out that in that sample, the stereotype was only valid in the case of neuroticism, so the women in our study were higher on that trait but they weren't higher on agreeableness. And so it helped in the case of neuroticism, in fact, the stereotype helped it, improved accuracy, whereas it actually got in the way of accuracy in the case of agreeableness. It misled the judges.

CONAN: So you might want to start there but you also might want to be ready to abandon the thesis as soon as you get more information.

Dr. GOSLING: Absolutely.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is AK(ph). AK is with us from Dixon, Illinois.

AK (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

AK: How you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

AK: Well, let me say I'm a big collector of stuff. And I'm sitting in my office. I'm a writer and around me is cow bones that I've picked up on hikes and deer antlers and strange taxidermy things, and although I'm not religious, a lot of iconic Catholic and Christianity prints and empty bottles and things like that.

CONAN: And what would that tell you about AK, Sam Gosling?

Dr. GOSLING: Well, it would be hard to know exactly what that is without learning a bit more about those associations. What we do know, though, about collectors - and collectors are different from hoarders. Hoarders are people who just collect everything.

CONAN: Can't throw it away.

Dr. GOSLING: Can't throw it away and that their collections cause them great distress. What we know about collectors is they tend to be - take pleasure in these collections and enjoy them. So it's quite different. And they also tend to be slightly higher on this big five trait which is known as conscientiousness. These are people who are orderly, organized and tend to be on the ball. But from any single clue you have to be very, very tentative in the judgments you make.

CONAN: Are you organized and diligent, AK?

AK: I try to be.

Dr. GOSLING: OK. You know, I would be very - whenever you ask, the last person to ask if they're organized is the person themselves. So it's one of these traits that we have extraordinarily little insight on ourselves because we've all had that experience where we're about to go into someone's home and they say, oh, you can't come in, it's in a terrible mess, you know. Oh, it's awful. And you go and what they mean by a terrible mess is that one of the coasters on the table is out of alignment or something like that. And that's because people with different personalities perceive the world differently.

And so this is the last person you should ask, is the person themselves. What we should really do is ask AK's friends, who would either be the ones who know they can turn to her for a spare stamp, if they need it, or also know they need to tell her the movie starts ten minutes before it really does because they're tired of waiting for her.

AK: Well, I think that most of my friends are just always trying to discern what the method to the madness is. And my grandparents' home was things on top of things on top of things. But they weren't hoarders. They were basically obsessed with collecting things that represented their lives. You know, one thing was oriental rugs and they would be nailed down on top of each other. And I think that perhaps it might be sort of a family thing.

CONAN: Genetic, that might be.

AK: Yeah.

CONAN: OK, AK, thanks very much for the call.

Dr. GOSLING: And not necessarily genetic. There's some marvelous work being done by this architect called Chris Travis(ph), who goes about creating - he designs homes for people and he said it's remarkable, it's remarkable how often people, when they're creating their spaces, are trying to recreate the space often of a grandparent. Because a grandparent was a time - a grandparent's home was where we went with our kids, with our parents often when they wanted to escape, relax and so on. And it's astonishing how often the places people create when they're able to, when they have the means to create those spaces, how often they try to recreate that feeling of a grandparent.

CONAN: Here's an email question we have from Lynn. "What does it say when you don't include personal items in your office or your car, et cetera?"

Dr. GOSLING: Well, it could mean a number of things. It often can mean that people want to have a big separation between their work and so on. That is, they don't want to bring their selves, their home selves into the workspace. They're trying to keep those lives separate.

It may mean, depending on what it looked like, that they're low on extraversion because we know that extroverts, they tend to decorate their spaces more. They tend to make them inviting places. They want people to come in. Extroverts just like people. And they are trying to lure you into their office so you'll come in and yack with them rather than work.

CONAN: Actually work, right. And I have to say, this is more than just a parlor trick of you know, something that amuses everybody, and it's interesting. This is actually used by - well, not just psychologists but law enforcement.

Dr. GROSLING: That's right. Of course, the FBI are doing something similar. They are looking for slightly different sort of behavior than we're looking for. They're looking for criminal behavior, whereas what I'm looking at is ordinary, everyday behavior. But that's very useful. You know, many of the judgments we make in everyday life, in terms of like who to promote and so on, is based on everyday behaviors.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. And this is Tina, Tina with us from Ithaca, New York.

TINA (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

TINA: Well, what can I say? My apartment - I'm in my bedroom now and I've got a couple of Japanese block prints and some framed Van Gogh prints and a painting that I've done on the wall. And everything kind of has a, you know, quasi-Oriental feel to it, sort of Asian style things.

Dr. GOSLING: How are they arranged? Where are they?

TINA: Well, I've tried to distribute everything so nothing's too cluttered. I don't know, I guess everything is positioned so as soon as you walk in, the first things and the painting I did is right above the bed.

CONAN: If you're lying in the bed, what do you see?

TINA: If I'm lying in the bed I see the Japanese block print and the Van Gogh prints in the window.

Dr. GROSLING: Well, people who have original art on their walls, that tends to be one of the big clues to this trait I mentioned before - openness, broadmindedness, and so on. But I would wonder what function these things are serving. So presumably, they're making you feel a certain way, and it would be very - this would be one of the really useful opportunities where it would help direct either my searching in the apartment for other things or even my questioning.

The truth is, of course, it's very rare that we go into someone's bedroom or their living space when we've never actually met them. You can do that, and that's indeed what I do with my research, I sent my research team into people's spaces who they had never met. But in real life, that's a rather unusual situation.

What this is really useful for is supplementing our knowledge of someone. And indeed, you can learn things about people from their spaces or their Web pages or whatever, that even their friends don't know.

CONAN: And that even they might not be aware they're saying.

Dr. GOSLING: They may not be aware.

TINA: One thing I wanted to mention as well is that I dated a fellow who I'm still good friends with, and he admitted the fact that he laid out like Proust and James Joyce novels, and you know, he bought the little lamp from the New Yorker just to project this idea.

Dr. GOSLING: Yeah. Right. Well - go ahead.

CONAN: I was just saying, that's one of the questions that you ask yourself in your book, is it possible to, well, sell yourself as something that you're not?

Dr. GOSLING: Yeah. And it's possible to do it to sort of a superficial glance. But I would suspect that your former boyfriend wouldn't have been able to get very far with that because in order to really pull that off, as soon as the conversation turned to Proust and it transpired that, you know, he's never even heard of him, or whatever, or if you looked through the book and found that the pages weren't really read, you know, it's harder to pull off. You can pull off something, and that's why living spaces are so good because it's a really difficult task to pull it off.

It's easy in a conversation. If I was to meet you, you know, if you'd go on a date with somebody, it's easy to say, oh, yes, I like Proust. But in a living space, in order to portray yourself as a true intellectual, it takes more than just buying a couple of books to do it.

TINA: Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: Tina, how long did it take you to see through him?

TINA: What's the...

Dr. GOSLING: Two minutes.

TINA: Oh, he readily admitted it when he realized the kind of person I was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

It was ridiculous. To this day, it's a big joke, especially the New Yorker lamp, it's completely ridiculous.

CONAN: Tina, thanks very much for the call.

TINA: Yes, thank you.

CONAN: So long. And here's an email we got from Chin Yerei(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who says: "And/or my email signature,"- we mentioned that at the beginning of the show - "and the email signature is injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. That from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16th, 1963."

And those little quotes that people put at the end of their emails, well, that's one clue, don't you think?

Dr. GOSLING: It is a clue, and it's a really useful clue because many of the clues that we face in everyday life, we don't really know where they came from. So, you know, do we know that Erin's bumper sticker was - did she put the UC-Berkeley thing on the car? Maybe she did, or maybe she inherited it when she got the car. And the thing about email signatures is we know who they belong to. So it's very, very useful. And it requires someone to actually go in and put it there. So that's one reason it's useful.

The other reasons it's useful is it normally gets to somebody's deep values. And so we talked about personality traits before, things like extroversion, conscientiousness and openness. But things like email traits, they go really to the heart of who someone is, their core values. And so something like, you know, it's obvious what it is saying in that, you know, somebody who has sort of progressive values and so on and sees the broader connections in life. But what's really useful here is we know, OK, this is something we should pay attention to. This is something the person wants us to know. And it's probably not - it's a truthful statement about them.

CONAN: And what does the Martin Luther King quote suggest to you?

Dr. GOSLING: Oh, as I said, I think it's sort of someone who has progressive values. I mean, again, the particular quote in this case is not, you know, is not particularly difficult to interpret. I mean, we all know what Martin Luther King stood for. But it's really that we know that this is an important clue, is the trick.

CONAN: Sam Gosling's book is "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And let's get Dicky on the line. Dicky's with us from Portland, Oregon.

DICKY (Caller): Hello, good morning.

CONAN: Happy Holiday.

DICKY: Hey, my question is involved with - my question is about the people who purposefully go out and kind of manipulate the personal information around them. I remember even as a child reading a book on handwriting recognition and forcing myself to change the handwriting. And also, with my Internet personalities because what I do for some podcasts, the sort of places I write, I purposefully create not misinformation but kind of things that would miss - that would cause people to head off in another direction if they were trying to, you know, research my data shadow on the net.

CONAN: Give me a quick for instance.

DICKY: Well, for example, my first name, you know, the name that you're using right now, Dicky Adams in Portland, Oregon is not really where I'm from. And - but the Internet personality for what people know of me through freelanceswitch.com would know me as Dicky Adams from Portland, Oregon.

CONAN: I see. So he wants us to think he's from a rainy place, Sam Gosling.

Dr. GOSLING: Yeah, he wants us to think a lot of things. He seems to be a slippery character, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah, so that alone might tell you something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Are you an especially slippery...

DICKY: It's not so much to be a slippery character, it's more - because I want to make sure that my - I value my privacy and I try to keep my data shadow very small as far as the net is concerned. But people who get to know me personally, in person, I'm perfectly willing to share that information with them.

CONAN: And Dicky, or whoever he may be, raises an interesting point. There is so much about us available not just in our living rooms and our office cubicles. But Sam Gosling, as you mentioned, on the Web there is tremendous amounts of information.

Dr. GOSLING: Yeah, there's tremendous amounts of information. Much of the most useful information, though, is really what we put there. Because unlike Dicky, it turns out, and lots of social psychological research has shown this, most of us actually want to be known. So there is a lot of suspicion about people, oh, we're trying to pull the wool over other people's eyes. But there's a lot of research shows that people are happier when they are known, when people see - when they are seen by others as they see themselves. But, you know, it's very reasonable that someone like Dicky is obviously somebody who's more private and may be less trusting than others.

Now, it doesn't mean - of course, everybody with their friends is perfectly OK with sharing information with them. So that's not really diagnostic. Once your friends are - what's different about Dicky here is how he - his general attitude toward unknown people or other people. You know, as anyone who's checked out Facebook or things, it's staggering what people are willing to say about themselves.

CONAN: Well, you can tell things about yourself openly or inadvertently, and you can figure out how to read them by reading Sam Gosling's new book, "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You." Sam Gosling joined us from the University of Texas at Austin where he's an associate professor of psychology, and from KUT, our member station there in Austin, Texas. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Dr. GOSLING: Oh, thank you so much.

CONAN: Coming up, if the latest Indiana Jones movie has you thinking about a career in archaeology, well, hold onto that fedora. We'll talk with a real archaeologist. He's never fought off bad guys with a whip, really. Next. That's on Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us.

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Excerpt: 'Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You'

Snoop Book Cover

A FedEx Package awaited me in the mailroom. Nothing much distinguished the box from other boxes. It was your standard box, brown and about the size of a shoebox, but squarer. What made this delivery different was the unusual set of instructions that came with it. I was not to open it until given permission to do so. Just in case I was in doubt, the words DO NOT OPEN were boldly inscribed in black ink across the top flap. According to instructions left on my voicemail, at a prearranged time I was to videotape myself opening the package. So at 3:00 P.M. the next day I took the box to a small room equipped with a video camera. Once inside, I pointed the camera to the spot where I would be standing and switched it on. I moved into view of the camera lens and pulled a small scrap of paper from my pocket. There was a number scribbled on the paper. I punched it into my cell phone.

"This is Dr. Gosling. I'd like to speak to Gary."

"I'll put you through."

A click. Then a pause.

"Gary speaking."

"It's Sam here. I'm ready."

"Go ahead and open it up."

Free at last to exercise my Pandoran urges, I slit the box open. "Inside you will see some things belonging to one person," said Gary. "They're all taken from that person's bathroom." (I noticed he was careful not to say his or her). "Take the objects out one by one," he continued, "and tell me what they say about the owner."

As I removed the objects, I turned each one over in my hands. A small tube of skin cream, a CD, slightly scratched, of dance music, a brown plastic hair brush, and a Polaroid photo of the owner's sink area. As I inspected each item for clues I narrated my reasoning to the camera. "Well, the brush is quite large, probably belonging to a man." My theory was supported by the Polaroid photo, which showed a sink area with the surrounding surfaces generally devoid of sweet-smelling stuff and with levels of grime and (dis)organization more likely to be associated with males than females. I noted that the hairs trapped on the brush were short, straight, and dark. Perhaps the person was Asian or Hispanic. The photo showed that the door on the bathroom vanity wasn't closed properly and the hairdryer cord was hanging out; the tube of skin cream had been squeezed in the middle, not from the end, and some crusty residue was stuck to the cap. The CD was a compilation of house music, a genre stereotypically associated with gay clubs. Combine that with the evidence that the person is concerned with his (I'm now pretty sure the owner is a male) appearance and a coherent picture begins to emerge.

After a few minutes, Gary asked: "So, what can you tell me about the owner of these items?" On the basis of what I'd inspected, I said I believed the owner was an Asian male in his mid to late twenties and that he was quite possibly gay. I had underestimated his age by a few years—he was in his early thirties—but I was right about the rest. Gary seemed pleased.

What was going on here? What was I doing talking to this faceless voice under such strange circumstances? And why should I, of all people, have anything useful to tell him?

The mysterious caller was a television producer planning a new reality series that would deal with the familiar, almost irresistible, human urge to snoop. If you're anything like me, you do more than passively observe the surroundings when you enter someone's living space for the first time. I find it hard not to look around and collect, filter, and process information about the occupant. Would I be so kind as to excuse the host while she goes to the bathroom? Absolutely! She's gone. Right. Hightail it over to the bookcase. Scan the books. A guidebook to budget travel in Madagascar. A tiny gift edition of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Interesting. Now the photos. Hmm, all but one show my host with a big group of friends, and each picture projects an image of drunken hilarity. No time to dwell, I just heard the toilet flush and there are still the CDs, the trash basket, and that pile of junk on the windowsill. And all this is before I've had a chance to snoop through her medicine cabinet . . . I mean, kindly be excused to powder my nose. (Medicine cabinets are such quintessential snooping sites that I've often thought it would be fun to surprise snoopers with a "visitors' book" inside.)

The television producers were taking this common snooping impulse to its logical endpoint: What can a physical space tell you about someone you have never met or even seen? The vision for the program—unlike MTV's popular show Room Raiders—included a role for an expert who would provide insight into the snooping process.

Why were the producers talking to me? I am a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, and I specialize in the study of personality differences and how people form impressions of others in daily life. My research focuses on the same question driving the television program: how people's possessions can tell us even more about their personalities than face-to-face meetings or, sometimes, what their best friends say about them. Indeed, my first study on this topic, which I conducted when I was still a graduate student at UC Berkeley, was the scientific equivalent of what the producers had in mind for their show. The study examined what observers could learn about men and women they had never met purely on the basis of snooping around their bedrooms.

The "bedroom study," as it came to be called, yielded fascinating findings in its own right (more about these later), and, to my surprise, the research and the ideas underlying it sparked significant interest beyond the halls of academe. Although other psychologists have looked at personality impressions based on small snippets of information, like video clips or short interactions, no one had examined rooms before. And no one had come up with such a rich bounty of information. The media reported our results with obvious glee. They gave their stories headlines such as "Object Lessons," "Behind Enemy Lines," and "Room with a Cue." One journalist dubbed me Snooper-in-Chief.

I continued my research in graduate school and have developed it further since taking up my post at the University of Texas in 1999. My graduate students and I have conducted many studies on personality in everyday life: We've peeked under beds and peered into closets; we've riffled through music collections; we've scrutinized Facebook profiles. We've visited a whole bunch of dorm rooms (eighty-three to be exact) and nearly a hundred offices in banks, real estate firms, business schools, advertising agencies, and architecture studios. And we've examined how people reveal their personalities in such ordinary contexts as their Web pages, their books, the words they use in casual conversation, and where they live.

In the years we've been doing this research my teammates and I have learned to be super snoopers; we have trained our eyes to exploit clues that will tell us what a person is really like. Did the Virginia Woolf volume mean that my friend was an ardent feminist? Or perhaps the book was merely one of many she was assigned for a course on British literature. Did the photos of drunken hilarity mean she was using alcohol as an escape? Or was she just a party girl? Some ten years into the research, we'd assembled an enormous amount of information, much of it unexpected, all of it valuable in showing how people portray and betray their personalities.

So perhaps the television people were on the mark. Maybe I could say something useful about this topic.

Books Featured In This Story

Snoop

What Your Stuff Says About You

by Sam, Ph.D. Gosling

Hardcover, 263 pages | purchase

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