Book review: Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You

Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, by Sam Gosling
New York: Basic Books, 2008

Until a couple of years ago, I lived in an apartment complex on the IU campus. There were two basic layouts (some apartments had balconies and some didn’t). It was always interesting to get a glimpse of what someone else had done with the same space that I had—for example, when I’d go to someone else’s apartment to buy yet another set of bookshelves from someone who was moving out, or sneak a glance through the open windows of a lighted apartment in another wing after dark. You can see the same thing in dorm rooms: a single basic spatial design, often very unimaginative, made distinctive by different occupants.

Examining dorm rooms in search of clues to their residents’ personalities is how Sam Gosling got his start in researching the connections between physical environment and temperament. Snoop is an entertaining look at how our stuff—for example, our bedrooms, bookshelves, offices, web sites, and email signatures—reveals who we are and what we value.

We drop various types of clues to the riddle of our selves. Some are there to tell the world who we are (identity claims), like bumper stickers or t-shirts. Others are there to help motivate, relax, or cheer us (feeling regulators), like religious icons, inspirational posters, and calming or energizing music. Placement for these two is important; something posted outside the cube or on the office door is probably meant to convey a particular image to others, while the family photos that are taped to the wall beside your monitor, where only you can see them, are more likely to be there for you. The third type of clue we leave is called behavioral residue: the candy bar wrappers on the floor of the car, the piles of half-read books next to the bed, the well-worn sneakers and like-new dress shoes.

People may try to manipulate their identity claims and even their behavioral residue to look like something they’re not, but usually it’s difficult to fully cover up your real self, and I gathered that often even if people plant clues that are misleading, they may not consciously be trying to deceive—their own vision of who they are may not entirely match reality. (Before you conclude that such people are crazy, consider whether you’ve bought or otherwise acquired for yourself something that you haven’t used/read/worn yet but that you mean to use/read/wear someday.)

To see how these various clues relate to what a person is all about, Gosling looks at research, including his own, that views personality based on the Big Five personality traits. He gives an overview of them (openness to new experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism) near the beginning of the book. The Big Five system is a fairly broad framework; Gosling discusses the traits as fairly large categories, but if you like, you can get into a lot of fine-grained detail about different facets of each trait and how you score on each one. (E.g., see the International Personality Item Pool page, which links to a short and a long version of a test that will help you place yourself on each of the facets.)

After describing the Big Five traits, Gosling goes into an excellent discussion of something that I haven’t seen anyone else discuss in any detail before, even in books about personality: What does it mean to say you know someone? He uses an approach developed by Dan McAdams that considers three levels: traits (the sorts of descriptors that personality systems and personal ads use to summarize people’s personalities), personal concerns (the context and circumstances that shape the way traits are expressed and experienced), and identity (the deepest level of all, encompassing the elements that a person feels are essential to who he or she really is). The chapter contains some (often amusing) information about traits, including a description of a very thorough study of the words used to describe personalities, and a comparison of the words used to describe dogs and humans.

I need to read more of what McAdams has to say, because I enjoyed this discussion of his ideas, and in particular the important point that personality traits will only carry you so far in understanding a person because “[t]here are many ways to be extraverted or nervous or entertaining or dramatic or moody.” I’ve thought about this a bit in the context of introversion in particular. I have a friend who scores even more highly on tests for introversion than I do; he’s a university professor and a pianist, so an important part of his working life involves speaking or playing the piano in front of a room full of people. If my job required me to do either of those things, I think I’d be so miserable that I wouldn’t last long at it. On the other hand, when I’m with someone I know well and trust, I can be so talkative and emotionally open that people say they can’t believe I’m an introvert, and those kinds of heart-to-heart discussions, which I love, often make my friend uncomfortable. In short, we have two very different styles of introversion, based on experience, talent, and interests (and perhaps gender?).

When examining the links between these five traits and various things we surround ourselves with, Gosling’s approach is to look at two things: the relationship between the Big Five traits and different aspects of personal space or belongings (books, clothes), and how well people’s evaluations of personal spaces and belongings jibe with these relationships. In tables scattered throughout the book, he lists the characteristics people use to evaluate personality based on, for example, the appearance of an office or bedroom, and compares that with the characteristics that actually reflect the five personality traits. There’s often a disjunct between the two. For example, people tend to judge openness on the quantity and variety of books in an office or living space, when studies indicate that it’s really only the variety that correlates positively with the trait of openness. The tables are condensed into a single diagram near the end of the book that shows how much you can learn about a given trait in a given situation (e.g., Facebook page, bedroom, office, short interview, music top-10 list). Extraversion is the only trait that reveals itself to at least some degree in all the situations listed.

Gosling also goes into some of the potential pitfalls that can lead snoopers astray. For example, you must take into account whether an item in a space actually belongs to the occupant (one group of students analyzing a young man’s dorm room were misled by a pair of high-heeled shoes left behind by an overnight guest) and how much control the person had over its presence. (In another example, a company evidently gave all of its employees Filofaxes, reducing the weight an observer would give to the presence of this item in a person’s office. Having one didn’t mean you were particularly organized; it just meant you’d been there when they handed them out.)

I happened to be reading this book while also reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works, and I was struck by how much overlap there was with Snoop, at least regarding the discussion of character. Fiction writers have to choose what to tell you about their characters so that you understand who they are; this means that the writer has to understand how people are likely to interpret the many details they combine to clothe their creations in something resembling reality. Therefore, they need to consider the same sorts of things that Gosling discusses in terms of snooping. For example, taking into account the timing can provide added clues (people may keep their personal spaces messier during a major project that consumes a lot of time, for example, or neater when they’re expecting company). Context is an even richer playground for an author, and a possible source of confusion to the snooper (when my younger son moved into his first apartment, the play sand in his shopping cart at Lowe’s had nothing to do with small children and sandboxes, and everything to do with the fact that he’s long been an enthusiastic herper who keeps snakes and lizards).

The book also gives some time to the much-misunderstood (in my opinion) concept of stereotypes. My own take on the subject is that yes, treating an individual person as if he or she were bound to be the sum of all the stereotypes about him or her based on race, gender, religion, etc., is demeaning, and probably logically impossible as well, but on the other hand, having quick heuristics by which to make an initial evaluation of new situations and new people can be a useful thing. As with many things in life, balance is crucial. Gosling discusses the possible utility and many pitfalls of stereotyping. He also talks about using the clues people present as only a starting point; if you truly want to know someone, ask about some of the more interesting clues you’ve spotted and see what you learn. He also warns against some common quirks (e.g., placing undue weight on first impressions) that can baffle our attempts at understanding others.

The book closes with a chapter about the Truehome system developed by Chris Travis. Travis designs houses for people based on their personalities and personal histories as much as on practical constraints. Obviously most of us don’t have the luxury of designing our own space at that level (although I gather the system can be used when altering existing spaces as well), but it’s a fascinating process to read about anyway. It made me think about the intertwining of practicality and psychological comfort that must have been part of building design from the days when humans first built permanent shelters. When you think about it, to some degree psychological comfort is practical.

All in all, I recommend this book if you’re at all interested in the topic of understanding personality. It’s witty, educational, and engaging, and it may make you look at your own living spaces, and those of others, with a new eye.