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Big Think Interview With Sam Gosling

Sam Gosling: I'm Sam Gosling, and I'm a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Question: What’s the latest frontier of your research on personal spaces?

Sam Gosling: We've begun to look much more into virtual spaces now, the idea being that people have much more control over those, to try and understand what people are doing in that context. Are they using virtual spaces—and by virtual spaces I mean things like social networking sites like Facebook and so on—how are they using those? Are they using those just as a medium of social communication, or are the using those as a kind of way to promote themselves, to portray themselves in a positive light?

Question: Are our physical and virtual spaces similar, or do the latter project an ideal?

Sam Gosling: We were very interested about that. We were interested in whether people use their social networks as a kind of compensation. So is it that people who are really outgoing can go into this virtual space to behave like an introvert, or is that just another opportunity for them to be outgoing? So do we see the out, offline activity mirrored online, or do we see it more of a hydraulic model, so they do one online and one offline? And what we've found on that is that people tend to do the same thing, so the people who are extroverted and have loads of friends in real life have loads of friends on Facebook too. People who have loads of interests in the offline world also do on the online. So in this case people are—it acts as just really an extension of their everyday life. Having said that, there's a couple of interesting things, is that people don't really know how their viewed on the basis of those spaces, so one of the things we've looked at is whether people project an accurate view of themselves or they project an inflated positive view of themselves. Because we thought, well, maybe people are using these more like a sort of a personal Web site in order to promote themselves, or are they really just using it as a way of communicating, more like the telephone? Are they just using it as another way of living out their lives? And so how we tested that was, we got people to observe people on the basis of their Facebook profiles, and we compared that to how people really saw themselves and also how they would like to be. And what we found there was that people—the impressions people get of you based on your profile—and they know nothing else about you, but just based on your profile—match much more closely with how you really see yourself than how you'd like to be. And that raises the question of, well, what are—are people trying to create a false impression and failing, or is it that they're not trying at all? I mean, we don’t really know what's going on, whether they're trying and failing or just not trying. But one of the interesting things which would make it a real challenge to create a false impression even if you wanted to is that people have no idea how they're viewed on the basis of their profile. So if you give somebody—if you say, okay, what do you think people think you're like on the basis of your profile, and then you compare that to what people really think, those things are entirely uncorrelated. They have—people are completely oblivious to the impressions they portray in everyday life, which of course has all kinds of implications for—in terms of your ability to try and control it. But also you have no idea what impressions these employers who are looking at your Facebook profiles are, or people who are, you know, cyber-stalking you or whatever. You have no idea of what impressions they're really getting of you.

Question: What problems arise in the conflict between personal and virtual worlds?

Sam Gosling: Well, I think there are a number of these effects which really only show up—which are nonlinear. So people are seen as more and more positive if they have, for example, a large number of friends and contacts. If they have too many, then it's seen as—it becomes seen in a negative light. So you have to control the number of connections that you have. But I think one of the, sort of the broader points is, you have to kind of realize that you can't really control these things. I mean, I think most of the technologies that we've had, you know, probably since industrialization—we used to live in tiny groups of people, and we'd know everyone in our group, and we wouldn't have this idea of having a work self and a social self and a relationship self, and even, you know, sub-selves within those. You'd just be the person—everyone would know you from all of those contexts when we lived in small groups. Then when you start having a life where you have to leave and you go to work, and you have people who know you at work who don't know you at home, you begin to segment these things out. You have these different selves. You have this idea that you can go and be a professional self, and then that's different and it doesn't matter that you behave in what some people might think is a nonprofessional way at home. And so—and I think until now, all of the technologies have increased the segmentation; they've made us to into these different fields. But now, with these social networking sites, where we can't really control who looks—and we can control a bit, but not that much—and where people can look us up on Google, suddenly you're losing control of that. And I think this is the first technology that's now beginning to have reversed the trend. So you can now—for the first time you can now no longer keep these things separate. So I can dress up in my suit and shirt and go in and teach my students at the university and, you know, portray myself in this very serious professional way. But I can't stop them, you know, logging on and finding photos of me, you know, drunkenly yelling at the camera with all of my friends too. I've lost control of that. So I think, you know, part of the thing that we have to do is sort of shrug and sort of reconcile ourselves to this idea that look, we are multifaceted, and people know it. I mean, we've always been multifaceted, but we've been able to portray ourselves, to direct certain selves to certain audiences. We're losing control of that, and I don't know really if there's much way round it. I think norms will change, though. I think norms will change. I think people will understand, just because you go out and, you know, go to Renaissance Fairs on the weekend, that doesn't mean you can't be a good accountant, or—you know, they'll realize, oh, in fact those people who I've always seen at Renaissance Fairs, they are the accountants or whatever it is.

Question: Can stereotypes be helpful?

Sam Gosling: Yeah. Well, we have to use stereotypes because we don't have the time to treat every instance as though it's really a new event. It's much more efficient to treat it as a class of broader events about—you know, where we already have information on those things. I've never sat on this chair before, you know, but I didn't test it. You know, how did I know that this was—would be able to hold me and wouldn't just melt, or—who knows? I mean, there are all kinds of things that I didn't know about this particular chair, but I made, you know, an evil, oppressive stereotype—I use that: evil, oppressive stereotype—and I just treated this chair like an other chair. But it turns out that that was a pretty good stereotype. This—thinking that this chair would be comfortable and that I could sit on it served me as a pretty good guide to my behavior. And not only did it do that, it took me a microsecond. I didn't have to go through and check the chair beforehand. So where stereotypes have a kernel of truth to them, then they are useful. Of course, where we get into trouble is when we're using stereotypes that don't have a kernel of truth to them. And that's something that's often very hard to know. So some of our stereotypes it turns out have some validity, some don't. And we can't always know which they are. And even if some—of course, even if some of those stereotypes do have a kernel of truth to them, they may not have a kernel of truth to them for the right reasons. It doesn't mean there's no—it could be all kinds of horrible processes that led to the fact that that stereotype is valid, but that doesn't—but—so I'm not endorsing the fact that some of these stereotypes, even if they're true, are indeed oppressive. Some really are. But it's nonetheless from an information processing stance useful to use them.

The other thing about—I just want to say about stereotypes is, it makes sense to use them, but to use them as a first guess. But then it's also important to be able to update that with real information as you get it. And so that's what we find when people are looking at people's spaces, is that people do use the stereotypes when they go into people's spaces; they make generalizations; they say, oh, okay, this space clearly belongs to a female. Therefore I'm going to activate some of my stereotypes based on differences between males and females. And that's a good place to start, but what's really important is that you are quick to abandon that if there's other information. And that's the danger of stereotypes, is, the danger of stereotypes is that we use them and then we stick too closely to them, and we're unwilling to revise our impressions afterwards, on the basis of new information. And the other danger is that we think those stereotypes may exist for some good reason, whereas it may not be a good reason for their existence.

Question: What clues about a personal space are most telling?

Sam Gosling: Well, the ones that I think are very important are looking at the location of the object. So when you go into a space, you need to ask yourself three questions. You need to say, what are the objects there? What do they have there? Okay, great. That they have, you know, some learned books here, that's very, very good. So that's a good start. Having the books is a start. But then you also need to understand how it's used. And how it's used, you need to look at the state. So okay, well, have these books ever been read? You know. And so are they thumbed through? Do they have notes in the margins, and so on. So the state tells you how it's used. And then the location tells you the psychological function it serves. So is it the fact that all of the learned books are out in the living room where people can see them—if you have those in the living room, but you have kind of trashy books in the bedroom, where they actually—the person does the reading—then you're looking for those discrepancies between public and private. So the location tells you the sort of function it serves. In that case, it would be—it's there to kind of project a learned, intellectual impression rather than just really because the person reads them.

Question: Can our spaces be manipulated to project a desired image?

Sam Gosling: One important point to bear in mind is that when we are looking at spaces there's a great tendency to think—just because this person has control over the space, and they have deliberately sent a message—there's a great tendency to think that people are trying to provide this positive image of themselves. But I think often, very often, in most cases people are actually trying to provide an honest signal. Just because people can have the ability to provide a disingenuous thing, I don't think people are trying to be manipulative. People tend to be, you know, happier, healthier and more productive when they can bring other people's view into line with their own. So I think in many cases, even if they could be manipulating the signal, they're not; they're sending an honest signal: this is who I am. They want to be known. They want to be known; it provides them with more predictability. They know you know how to react to them, and the interactions go more easily when everyone has a good understanding of who is who. So that's one thing. Having said that, you can—a very good place to try and make false impressions is actually in a face-to-face encounter, because it just takes a lot of effort. You know, if I wanted to, I could come in here and really focus for half an hour, and I could give you the impression, if I really focused on being a broadminded person, being very responsible and reliable, being outgoing—if I directed all of my energies to that, because I would just have to pull the wool over your eyes for half an hour. It would be harder to do in a long-term relationship, of course, and it would be particularly hard to do in somebody's space. It's hard to do in a space because you can't—it's very hard to make my bedroom or my office or my living space really have the attributes that somebody who's extroverted, who's broadminded and conscientious has. I couldn't just fake it, and I couldn't do it for a number of reasons. I couldn't do it because it's impossible to keep up that amount of effort. You can alphabetize your books, but in order to have a fully alphabetized book collection you have to keep doing it. You have to put the books back, and if you're not really that way, it's very, very hard to do that on a persistent, consistent basis. And the other reason is that part of having a personality is to—of a certain personality—is the way you see the world. And if you don't have a certain personality, you don't see things that others see. So my—I'm pretty chaotic and messy, and my colleague next door, she's very, very neat and tidy. And you could go into her office and pull a, you know, a book out of the bookshelf half an inch, and she would notice right away, and—because part of her personality is just seeing those things. If you went into my office, you could take the books and put them on their sides, and you wouldn't—I wouldn't notice it for months. And that would be very hard for me to fake. I couldn't really fake that level of attention, even if I really tried. I just don't see the stuff that they see.

Question: How can your work with personal spaces improve low-cost housing?

Sam Gosling: Sure, yeah. So well, I first got interested in this idea that we might be able to design spaces that really suit people's personalities when I learned about the work of Chris Travis, who runs an architecture firm in Austin. And what he does is, he conducts these in-depth interviews with people and constructs these spaces that speak to their basic psychological needs, often needs that they haven't really articulated before. They're not really aware how he does it. And he creates these magnificent houses that the people—seems to fit with their lifestyle and all kinds of associations that they have had with space, most of which were learnt very, very young. Now, but of course those are only good if you're sufficiently wealthy to be able to build a house. And Chris Travis has been very interested in trying to say, well, can we apply these methods to other groups of people, you know, for whom housing is just as important? And so recently he is engaged in a project with a low-cost community housing organization in renovating some housing for people who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless, to try and see if he can use his methods to try and make people stay in these places longer. Often people go into these community housing projects but leave pretty quickly. And part of the reason, we think, is because they're not taking psychology in to account when they create these spaces. The typical solution to low-cost housing renovations is to go in, repaint the walls, put new fixtures, new doorknobs, maybe, you know, new curtains and so on—put all those things up, send the people in there and say, okay, there's your house. But it's not really crafted to the psychology of the person. So what we're doing right now is, we are evaluating the effectiveness of trying to apply his system in a low-cost community housing project, where people are being interviewed about their associations with space and if we can try and account for those in the system. Now, it turns out that this system of just giving everybody the same house isn't very effective, because many of the reasons that people aren't able to stay in housing on a long-term basis have a psychological root. So for may of us, if you are in a space, that feels like a place where you're safe. But that's not true for everyone. That's not true for many people who are homeless. They're homeless because actually being in an enclosed space makes them feel unsafe. It makes them feel danger. Perhaps they had some experience, some traumatic experience, in an enclosed space. So if we can begin to understand those associations, we can say, okay, well, as long as we can make this person feel like they can always escape, that they're never cornered—maybe put in an extra door, maybe create the layout of the space which always allows them a way out—then maybe it won't be so aversive to be in a space like this. So we don't yet know if this will work, but that's what we're looking at right now; we're evaluating whether or not this system allows people to be more effective.

Question: Can animals have personalities? 

Sam Gosling: Well, yeah, for a long time we've been looking at personality in nonhuman animals. And when we started doing it, I have to say we—it met with a lot of resistance; resistance from people who thought it was anthropomorphic to talk about personality in animals. And there certainly is anthropomorphism that goes on. So in one of our early studies we didn't have any measures specifically for animals, so we were just using human instruments on animals. So we were asking, for example, owners to rate their dogs on a human personality instrument. And they did that very effectively, so they were happy to rate their dogs on things like whether it's aggressive and friendly and maybe—you know, high-strung—sorts of things you could easily see applying to animals. But we wondered what would happen when they got to some of the words which you'd think would be a greater stretch. And one of the terms on the questionnaire was philosophical. So when people come to rate their dogs at philosophical, we wondered what people would do. Would they leave it blank? Would they like write a note on it? Would they, you know, ask us, hey, I don't understand; how could I rate—we wondered what would happen. What in fact happened was, people perfectly happily rated their dogs on philosophical. They—you know, they didn't even pause.

Now, dogs aren't philosophical; at least, they're not philosophical in the way that humans may be philosophical. They may appear as though they're philosophical. So this really is a case of anthropomorphism. So anthropomorphism clearly does go on. But just because it goes on, that doesn't mean we have to like shrug our shoulders and walk away. It means we just have to be careful. It doesn't mean that every time we talk about personality in an animal it's anthropomorphism. Some of it might be; some of it might not be. And so our initial research was really saying, can we measure personality in animals in a reliable, valid way? And we found we could. And we worked in all kinds of species, so we've worked with dogs and cats, spotted hyenas; we worked with chimpanzees; we've recently even worked with squid, looking for personality in squid. And once you can measure personality in animals, then you can do all kinds of really interesting things.

First of all, you can ask questions within animals themselves, so just looking at how does personality evolve. So this is—you know, behavioral ecologists would be interested in this—just within animals in their own right. You can also look at animals and say, okay, what can we learn—what can studies of animal personality tell us about human personality? So we're using that as a model for learning about humans. We have one study going on right now where we're trying to look at risk-taking behavior in chimpanzees, because we're very interested in risk-taking because high risk-takers, they get themselves and others into trouble; they drive fast, they take drugs, they have unsafe sex, they do all kinds of things that we care about. So we're trying to say, in this more controlled environment of looking at chimpanzees, what can we learn about the biological and genetic basis of risk-taking that will help us understand it and treat it in—or come up with interventions—in human populations? And then the third area that animal personality has applications is in applied fields.

So can we identify dogs at shelters that are best matched to certain owners? Many—most people who return dogs to dog shelters after they haven't worked out, it's because they—it's the behavioral problems. It didn't work out right, which is really personality. So can we do something akin to what goes on with romantic matching? Rather than matching, you know, person to person, can we have a d-Harmony, you know, e-Harmony for dogs, where we're matching dogs to their owners in the hope of trying to make those relationships more effective in the long term? And we have a number of projects going on looking at that right now. And then another way that's very practically useful is trying to find dogs that are best suited to certain tasks. So just like some people would be better librarians versus journalists versus salespeople, the idea is, are some dogs suited to tasks? One of the tasks that dogs are most—one of the tasks that we see a lot of dogs used in is in drug detection and explosives detection. So we're working right now on explosives detection dogs, saying, can we find dogs that have a personality that's well suited to that occupation? When I first started—came into that field, I thought, well, what does it have to do with personality? I thought the dogs that are going to be really good are the ones that had very good noses, that are very good at detecting where the various explosive **** are through their noses. But it turns out that most of the dogs can find most of the explosives most of the time in conditions where it's a quiet air-conditioned warehouse in Texas. Most of the dogs can find most of the bombs most of the time. However, when you're out in the field—when you're in Iraq—and there's helicopters flying above, and there's gunfire, and there's herds of goats running by, and the handler is anxious, and all kinds of things going on, some of the dogs can't handle that. They can't continue to work. You need dogs that are going to be able to handle that stress. And when there are frightening things, when there is a loud noise, can they recover quickly and get back to work quickly? So it turns out that although you have to be able to detect the bombs with your nose as a basis, whether or not you will be able to effectively implement your nose in the field is really determined by personality characteristics.

Question: How has your research affected your own relationship with animals?

Sam Gosling: I don't have pets. But, you know, one of the things that I found very helpful is thinking about breeds. Like many people, I used to be very dependent on breeds as a basis for predicting how an animal will behave. And even when I started studying this, I continued to believe, well, surely—one of the reasons, one of the driving forces in breeds, is their behavior. So we do asso—tend to think that certain breeds have certain personalities. So in approaching those, even after I started this work I continued to believe that until I saw the data. And what's really amazing is that there is so much variation even within breed. And that—you know, we were talking about stereotypes. We talked about—we have stereotypes of certain breeds. Sure, that's a good, maybe, starting point. But you have to be willing to drop that stereotype very, very quickly, because so much of the differences in personality is accounted for by individualities within the breed, not the breed itself.

Question: Who are your heroes?

Sam Gosling: I—the heroes I like are the people who acknowledge the world as a complex place. There is so much incentive to think things are simple. So you know, one of the first people who I really noticed who was able to do that was the former Secretary General of the U.N., Kofi Annan. And he was really impressive to me; people—you know, because people would say, how are you going to—you know, you're going to go into this country and negotiate; how are you going to fix it? You know, and where the typical politician would have said, yes, well, it's very simple; we're going to do this. And he would respond and say, well, I don't know how I'm going to do it; it's going to be tough; I'm going to try, and maybe I'll fail, and maybe I'll succeed. We'll see. And it was so refreshing to see somebody who realized—who's able to be successful and not be frightened by the complexity of the world; embrace it and work with it.

Recorded on November 6, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

 

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