Imagine you are a Martian sent to earth with the job of finding out as much as you can about humans. You would quickly see that humans spend a lot of time interacting with one another and you might notice that their behaviors diff er from individual to individual. So you decide to learn about their social behavior and the ways in which they differ. Being a shrewd Martian you figure that, rather than try to discover everything yourself, you will instead take advantage of the decades of research done by a particular group of people who, like you, have been trying to understand social behavior and personality—social and personality psychologists. You confidently return to Martian headquarters to file your report, which you have based on reading the very top journals in social and personality psychology. According to your report, these humans are odd creatures indeed. About 30% of their time is spent using stereotypes, 25% of their time infl uencing or being infl uenced by groups, 15% developing attitudes, 10% filling out personality questionnaires, 10% making decisions, and 10% forming relationships. Your fellow Martians are fascinated by your revelations because they suggest (according to your analysis of the top journals at least), that humans do not spend any time working, gardening, shopping, exercising, talking, reading, surfi ng the internet, listening to music, relaxing, driving, worshiping, watching TV and movies, eating, drinking, or sleeping.
This example illustrates that what social and personality psychologists study covers
only a very small portion of what most people do in their lives. It also highlights
the extraordinary lack of imagination we psychologists exercise when it comes to considering what constitutes legitimate topics of psychological research. Th e result is that the vast majority of the things people do never get studied.
Consider music. Nearly everyone listens to music. It’s such a universal phenomenon that there must be some interesting psychological processes going on. So when my former graduate student Jason Rentfrow (now on the faculty at Cambridge University) said he would like to study the social and personality psychology of music, I told him to find out what had been done already. A literature search revealed that of the nearly 11,000 articles published between 1965 and 2002 in the leading social and personality psychology journals, “music” was listed as an index term (or subject heading) in only seven articles! How could something so important be so thoroughly neglected? It seems that the fi eld of personality has become so preoccupied with finding the major dimensions of individual differences and resolving statistical issues that they took their eyes off the phenomena that originally drew them to the field—what people actually do. As the eminent personality psychologist David Funder noted in a recent review of the field, “The catalog of basic facts concerning the relationships between personality and behavior remains thin” (Funder, 2001, p. 212). The good news for social and personality psychologists entering the field is that their options are wide open in terms of topics and there are plenty of opportunities to establish yourself studying the phenomena that really grab your attention. In his few years studying the social and personality psychology of music, Jason Rentfrow has already established himself as a world authority on the topic (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003, 2006, 2007; Rentfrow, Gosling, & Potter, 2008).
Psychology of Everyday Life
I am interested in learning what it is that we spend our time doing in our ordinary everyday lives and how those things might be related to our personalities. There is an enormous array of potential contexts in which personality could be expressed. There could be clues to what you are like in contexts as varied as your living space or office; the music you listen to; the passwords and usernames you choose; your voicemail answer message; bumper stickers; the injuries you sustain; your dreams; your style of language; your nationality; your profession; your preferences for movies, books, magazines, TV shows, leisure activities, sports, or food; the way you shake hands; your choice of clothing; the entries in your journal; the contents of your bathroom cabinet, handbag, wallet or Facebook profile, to list just a few. People certainly jump to conclusions about others on the basis of such information. But psychological research has barely begun to show us which of these conclusions might be accurate.
The Science of Snooping
My research focuses on understanding how personality is revealed in real-world contexts in everyday life. We are especially interested in how individuals select and craft the environments in which they dwell. We argue that individuals consciously and unconsciously leave traces of their individuality in the spaces around them. In turn, others may use these traces to form impressions about the occupants and only some of these impressions will be accurate. Note, that we have a very broad conception of “environment,” which includes standard physical environments like livings spaces and offices, but also refers to aural environments (e.g., the music we listen to), virtual environments (e.g., personal webpages and Facebook profiles), immediate physical environments (e.g., clothing and appearance), and social environments (e.g., the places we go and the people with whom we interact). In each kind of environment, we are interested in addressing the following basic questions:
Everyday manifestations of personality— Which cues are reliably linked to what individuals are like?
Everyday person perception—Which cues do individuals use to form their impressions of others?
Consensus—Do observers agree with one another in their impressions of others?
Accuracy—Are observers’ impressions of others accurate?
Stereotype use—How do stereotypes hinder or promote consensus and accuracy?
A Room With a Clue
Figure 1 shows two different dorm rooms from the same complex. Clearly the two occupants have left very different impressions on the spaces they inhabited, which when they arrived were essentially identical. On the basis of our research, we have proposed three broad mechanisms by which individuals’ personalities become stamped on their environments.
Thought and feeling regulators. Personal environments are the contexts for a wide range of activities, ranging from relaxing and reminiscing to working and playing. The effectiveness with which these activities can be accomplished may be affected by the physical and ambient qualities of the space. It can be hard to relax with a lot of noise around, and it is difficult to concentrate when surrounded by distractions. Such considerations influence where we go to perform an activity. Most people would find it easier to concentrate at the library than at the video arcade and easier to relax at the beach than at a death metal nightclub. The environmental features conducive to one activity are not always the same as the features conducive to another. A massage in a health spa is typically accompanied by gentle music, soft lighting, and a fragrant atmosphere—not by stroboscopic disco lights and a thumping bass.
We propose that a whole subset of items within an environment owe their presence to their ability to affect the feelings and thoughts of the occupant. Elements used to regulate emotions and thoughts could include photos of family, keepsakes, the color of the walls, and the CDs in the stereo. Each one of these elements can be used to affect how the occupant feels, serving such diverse purposes as allowing the occupant to reminisce about bygone happy times, focus on an important task, or get pumped up for a night on the town.
Identity claims. One of the ways in which people make spaces their own is by adorning them with “identity claims”—deliberate symbolic statements about how they would like to be regarded. Posters, awards, photos, trinkets, and other mementos are often displayed in the service of making such statements. Such signals can be split up into two broad categories, other-directed identity claims and self-directed identity claims, each refl ecting their own particular psychological functions.
Other-directed identity claims are statements made by occupants directed to others about how they would like to be regarded. Bumper stickers on a bedroom door and pompoms in the university colors could serve such a purpose, effi ciently and publicly conveying the occupant’s values. Obviously, it is crucial that one’s intended audience understand the intended message, so these other-directed identity claims tend to rely on objects with shared meanings. By displaying culturally understood symbols, occupants of a space intentionally communicate their attitudes and values to others. The specific content of other-directed identity claims may vary according to the identity of the anticipated “other,” with different audiences evoking different self-presentational motives—you may not choose the same items to impress your friends as you would to impress your coworkers.
In addition to making statements to others about how we would like to be regarded, we can also make self-directed identity claims— symbolic statements made for our own benefit—intended to reinforce our self-views. An expatriate Ethiopian living in the United States, with a strong sense of ethnic identity, may reinforce and affirm his self-view using Ethiopian iconography that resonates with his sense of self.
When identity claims are directed at the self, they can make use of symbols understood by others as well as items with meanings that are unclear to outside observers. As long as the items have personal meaning to the occupant, they can serve as eff ective self-directed identity claims. A pebble collected from a beach where the occupant had her first kiss could help the occupant connect to elements of her selfviews formed during that period of her life. Self-directed identity claims and thought and feeling regulators overlap somewhat because both processes are designed by the occupant to affect how he or she feels.
Behavioral residue. Many behaviors leave some kind of discernible residue in their wake. Given that large quantities of behavior are performed in personal environments, it makes sense that these places might accumulate a fair amount of residue. For example, the prototypically orderly act of organizing one’s space may result in the residue of an alphabetized CD collection, whereas the creative act of doing some drawings may leave the occupant’s charcoal sketches lying on the floor as its byproduct. The term “behavioral residue” refers to the physical traces left in the environment by behavioral acts. Sometimes it is the lack of an act that leaves a residue. For example, the dishes in the sink are the residue of the fact that you did not clean up after eating.
One central property of behavioral residue is the fact that it tends to refl ect repeated behaviors. Th is property is an important part of what makes it so useful to observers. For something to be part of your personality, it should be typical behavior—something done repeatedly over time and across situations. A truly organized person does not just organize her books once, she keeps them organized, putting them back in their proper place, and she also organizes her CDs and keeps her filing drawers in order. Behaviors that occur repeatedly are more likely to leave residue than are behaviors that appear only occasionally. This is why behavioral residue is useful: It typically reflects not just a single unreliable act, but a whole pattern of acts, making residue a rather reliable source of information.
In addition to the residue of behaviors already performed, environments may also contain clues to anticipated behaviors; for example, a new deck of cards and a set of poker chips suggest an occupant is planning a game of poker. The metaphor of residue breaks down a bit for activities that have yet to be completed, but the general inference process is the same. Items in the space and their arrangement reflect potential or envisaged behavior.
In addition to containing remnants of past and anticipated activities within that space, personal environments also contain residue of behaviors performed beyond the immediate surroundings. Material preparations for planned activities to be undertaken outside of the physical environment can provide all kinds of diagnostic behavioral information. A surfboard, snowboard, and skateboard stacked up against a bedroom wall suggest a sensation seeker occupies the room. This point is important because it emphasizes the breadth of information that is potentially available in a personal environment, extending well beyond the space itself.
Of course, only some acts leave physical traces in their wake. The act of sharpening all one’s pencils leaves a trace (i.e., sharp pencils in the drawer and pencil shavings in the trash can) in the environment, but the act of smiling does not. In addition, two different behaviors could result in similar environmental manifestations—a messy room could indicate sloth, or it could indicate a person who is overwhelmed with other responsibilities. Thus, although personal environments are inextricably tied to behaviors, it should be clear that personal environments are not the same thing as behavior. And because personal environments often contain a broad array of evidence in a single location, evidence in one area (e.g., the organized bookshelf) can be used to disambiguate the causes of evidence in other areas (e.g., whether the messy room indicates a slothful or temporarily overwhelmed occupant).
Note that the mechanisms described above are not mutually exclusive, and it may not always be clear to observers which mechanisms are responsible for which cues. For example, the snowboard in the corner of a room may indeed reflect exterior behaviors, but the occupant’s decision to display the snowboard (rather than stow it in a closet) may also reflect a desire to make other-directed identity claims.
Extending the Meaning of Environment
In addition to physical spaces (and the possessions that fill them) there are many other kinds of environment that could furnish information about others. Just as we craft our physical spaces, we also select and mold our auditory and social environments. Just as we physically dwell in houses and offices, we dwell virtually in online environments like virtual worlds, personal websites, and socialnetworking portals (e.g., MySpace.com, Facebook.com, Friendster.com, Tribe.com). Just as we leave traces of our actions, intentions, and values in our permanent spaces, we can also leave traces in other immediate surroundings such as our cars or clothing. Although the three mechanisms mentioned above were originally developed in the context of physical environments, they can easily be applied more widely. For example, hairstyle and clothing can be used to make identity claims, and clothing and accessories can provide evidence of past or anticipated behaviors. In other words, an individual’s physical appearance may hold many clues to what he or she is like. And as was the case in physical environments, observers may use this information to form impressions about individuals.
How accurate are impressions formed on the bases of various contexts? We have found that different traits are revealed in different places. The “blob analysis” in Figure 2 shows the accuracy of personality impressions based on (a) profiles on the social networking site Facebook; (b) personal Web sites; (c) bedrooms; (d) offices; (e) CDs of all-time Top-10 songs; (f) records of everyday social behaviors derived from micro-recorders attached to participants for a few days; and (g) brief face-to-face interactions. The bigger the blob, the more accurate the impressions.
The blob analysis allows us to draw some broad conclusions that are missed by looking at the studies in isolation. First, it is dangerous to draw conclusions from just one domain; the field of psychology has based the vast majority of its impression formation research on face-to-face interactions and has concluded that openness cannot really be judged accurately. The figure shows that this conclusion is off target; indeed, openness can be judged accurately in many domains, but the problem was the field’s overreliance on face-to-face interactions. Second, some traits are easier to spot than others; across domains openness is easier to spot than agreeableness. Third, some domains provide more information than others; web sites provide a good general view of someone, offices are less informative. But these broad conclusions obscure an even broader and more important point—that different domains reveal different traits.
This observation means that the best portraits will be those that draw on several contexts. And it means that the trait you’re interested in learning about will determine where you direct your attention. Using the blobs as your guide, you can see that living spaces are great for learning about openness, conscientiousness, and, sometimes, neuroticism. But if it’s people’s extraversion or agreeableness you’re after, a peek at the “most played” list on their iPods is more telling than a bedroom visit—for example, those who listen to a lot of rap/hip-hop tend to be relatively extraverted and agreeableness is signaled by a lot of religious music and not much heavy metal.
Now that the connections between individuals and their places are well established, future research should focus on elucidating the exact processes by which observers use environments in the judgment process. How much are judgments based on direct inferences (from the residue to the behaviors that caused the residue) and how much are they based on the use of stereotypes?
Researchers also need to position themselves at the forefront of the many new environments that are emerging. In addition to understanding the connections between real people and their representations in virtual worlds (i.e., avatars), it will become increasingly important to understand how impressions are formed of virtual entities in their own right. For example, research will need to focus on the online identities created through immersive virtual worlds such as those found in games like EverQuest, World of Warcraft , and the virtual social network Second Life. As more and more interactions become entirely virtual in nature, it is important for social and personality researchers to examine the causes and consequences of the new social phenomena rapidly emerging in this domain. Across contexts, similar mechanisms seem to underlie the links between people and the places in which they dwell. So past studies of physical environments will continue to provide a useful starting point from which to examine the connections between people and the increasingly broad array of environments they create and inhabit (Gosling, 2008).
Sam Gosling, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He did his doctoral work at the University of California at Berkeley, where his dissertation focused on personality in spotted hyenas. In addition to his animal work he also does research on Internet-based methods of data collection and on how human personality is manifested in everyday contexts like bedrooms, offices, webpages, and music preferences. Gosling's environmental research, which is summarized in his book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, is based on the idea that the spaces in which we live and work are rich with information about what we are like. His work has been widely covered in the media, including The New York Times, Psychology Today, NPR, Nightline, and Good Morning America. Gosling is the recipient of the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution.