What stuff says about us

From a Scientific American article 21/10/09

Ever take the time to really think about the stuff you have? Photos pinned to the bulletin board? Do you carry extra stamps in your purse? Slippers flung to either end of a room, or aligned perfectly—parallel to the bed?

“There are all kinds of things when you begin to look, of the way people leave traces of who they are in their spaces.”

That’s psychologist Sam Gosling from the University of Texas speaking on October 19 at theNational Association of Science Writers annual conference in Austin, Texas. And he thinks a lot about our stuff. Specifically how one might glean ideas about our personality based on just looking at our possessions.

He had his team go into people’s spaces (physical and virtual) and rate their personalities, just by looking at bedrooms, offices, Facebook pages, Web sites, and top-ten music lists.

By personality he means an individual’s scores on the big five personality dimensions: openness to experience (curiosity, creativity); conscientiousness (self discipline, controlling impulses); extraversion (social, outgoing); agreeableness (cooperative, trusting); neuroticism (Woody Allen as apposed to the Dude from The Big Lebowski).

“I thought conscientiousness would be where all the action is. I thought that was really going to show up. People get organized, they get supplies.”

Or we might assume that party photos or music playlists would reveal a person’s level of extraversion.

“However everything, in fact all the other correlations were dwarfed by the accuracy of openness. People were astonishingly good at picking up people’s openness to experiences by going around their spaces.”

Interesting that what people have reveals most about their level of openness.

But what if we wanted to change the way we are and try new habits with our spaces? Well Gosling illustrates one challenge with this, using an example of stamps:

“Who here carries spare stamps in their wallet or their bag? Raise your hand if you do. Ok now raise your hand if you do not carry. Ok, about half and half. What I find interesting about this is not who carries stamps. What is most interesting about this is the reactions of the people with their hands down. Those people who don’t carry stamps are thinking, “What? I’ve never even thought of carrying stamps. Why would I carry spare stamps?”

And all the people who do carry stamps are all thinking, “Well what if you need to mail a letter?”

And so the point of showing you this is that what individuals do seems self-evident and that’s why spaces are pretty hard to fake. It shows you that sometimes you think you’ve got it wrong but actually you haven’t. People are just using a different standard.

You’ve all had that experience where you are going to go into somebody’s place and they say, “Don’t come in it’s a terrible mess.” And you go in, look around, and the vase is not properly centered on the table. And they’re not trying to mess with you, for them it really is a terrible mess. And that’s because they have a different standard.

Even if we wanted to create a false impression, even if I wanted to give the impression of being as meticulous and organized as Cindy I just don’t see the world in a way that would allow me to do that. I wouldn’t see things that she sees.”

Christie Nicholson

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