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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,[…]

Sam Gosling shares an anecdote about an incongruous office item.

Question: Have you ever been completely wrong in your assessment of an office?


Sam Gosling: Let me think if we’re completely wrong- well, I think there are some interesting cases where people get it wrong, and we know why they get it wrong.

And this often occurs in the case when you have very distinctive items. And so this is one of the things that one should kind of get expert at- you’ve got to watch out for- ‘cause, as I said, what we’re looking for is we’re looking for patterns- we’re looking for overall patterns, and things that are distinctive by nature of being distinctive- they’re inconsistent with the pattern- but they draw your attention. So we went into- one of the rooms we went into, everything indicated it was a socially-responsible person who was a nice person, they were organized and together, and not that reckless- pretty, sort of conservative in many ways, yet in the corner of the room, there was a plastic crate full of drug paraphernalia- a bong for smoking marijuana and stuff like that- and, of course, the judges come in and they see that, which sticks out, and they go straight over to it, and are likely to interpret it make- draw strong inferences from it.

Of course, the very reason that makes it stick out is the very reason they should have ignored it. And it turns out, when I later found out what was it doing there- turns out that this person was holding onto the- her roommate had gone traveling around the world and said, “could you look after this stuff?” She said, “yeah, sure” and she responsibly put it in the crate and put it in the corner of the room. <laughs> So it was consistent with her personality, but not in the way you’d think it was.


Recorded on: June 13, 2008.


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