What Our Personal Spaces Can’t Hide

Sam Gosling, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. His work has been widely covered in the media, including The New York Times, Psychology Today, NPR, and "Good Morning America," and his research is featured in Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink." Gosling is the recipient of the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution. His first book, Snoop, was a New Scientist Editor's Pick for top books of 2008. His most recent research has focused on how animal psychology can inform theories of human personality and social psychology.

  • Transcript


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.

Recorded on November 6, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen