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.
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.
Recorded on November 6, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen