Dana Reeves (dana) Tue 19 Aug 08 09:58
We're very happy to welcome Sam Gosling to the Inkwell for a discussion of his book, "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You". Sam Gosling is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas. Born in London and raised in Gloucestershire, he now lives in Austin. He did his graduate work in Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, where he began his two core lines of research: Personality in non-human animals and the topic of Snoop, how personality is expressed and perceived in everyday environments. He was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and he is the recipient of the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution. Please visit him at http://snoopology.com/ . Leading the conversation with Sam is the Well's own David Adam Edelstein. David Adam Edelstein is a software designer and street photographer and spends most of his time trying to wrap his head around what's going on in other people's heads. He's delighted to find out there's a word for it, besides "that creepy guy looking at my shoes on the bus." Welcome, Sam and David!
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Tue 19 Aug 08 16:16
Thanks, Dana. Sam, this book was a heck of a lot of fun to read. It's given some focus to my normal nosy behavior -- or my normal snooping behavior, I guess. I think we should start with a definition of terms here -- how do you explain the idea of snooping to someone who doesn't know your work?
Sam Gosling (samgosling) Wed 20 Aug 08 04:37
That's a great question David because a big part of snooping is normal nosy behavior. But two things set it apart from ordinary everyday nosiness. First, snooping is based on empirical research; we jump to many conclusions about people on the basis of their living spaces or music collections or facebook profiles, but only some of those are right. So we need to check out the research on the topic to evaluate our intuitions. Second, and most important, when snooping our normal natural nosiness is structured by an understanding of how we humans are connected to our physical spaces from a psychological perspective. Our physical spaces do a whole lot more than provide protection, shelter, and privacy; they also serve psychological functions like expressing ourselves and making us feel a certain way. Many (most even) objects owe their presence in our space to these psychological functions. And virtually all these links to our spaces are driven by processes that are so natural and automatic that we don't normally think about them. We don't think, "oh, that photo is going to be useful in making a self-directed identity claim," we think, "I like that photo. I should put it up somewhere." So the first step in snooping is thinking about our own spaces. How do we connect to these environments that we have selected and crafted around ourselves?
(dana) Wed 20 Aug 08 10:25
(NOTE: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to the conversation by emailing <email@example.com> -- please put the author's name in the subject line. Thank you!)
Jessica Merz (jessicafm) Wed 20 Aug 08 10:26
Sam, I really enjoyed reading your book as well. As a usability engineer and software product designer, I'm always trying to figure out what/how people are thinking and I'm sure I'll be taking some of you lessons to heart when next out visiting our customers' offices. You've added more tools to my Contextual Inquiry kit.
Elisabeth (wickett) Wed 20 Aug 08 10:38
Must. Read. This. Book!
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Wed 20 Aug 08 14:08
Reading Snoop definitely got me thinking about my own spaces, both at home and at work. Looking at my office, my first response was that so many of the things here are dropped at random -- a couple of stacks of sticky notes, a ruler, a napkin or two from the kitchen -- that it would be hard to figure out anything about me from them. Of course further along you explained that the very fact of my having things dropped at random is a clue to my personality. Uh oh. I'm interested in the idea of people having dual spaces, though. I of necessity filter what's in my office versus what's at home. Do you find that you learn less from that kind of a relatively public space? Or do you just learn different things?
Jessica Merz (jessicafm) Wed 20 Aug 08 14:12
David, I've had similar thoughts about my office vs home space. What is my space saying about me? I know that I put more thought in to what's in my office at work vs. my office at home. This is mainly because very few people see my home office, whereas my space at work is seen by colleagues and upper management. The office is where I put on my professional mask, and I've actually thought a bit about whether to put out awards of recognition, what poster is on the wall, which (usability related) Dilbert cartoon is on my window, etc. What I do wonder, however, is what impression those artifacts leave on my visitors.
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Wed 20 Aug 08 16:13
When I was in high school many moons ago, I was obsessed by defining a person by their bookshelf-- see their bookshelf, know the person. I even proposed a video/film on that topic for a class I was taking, and while it ended up not getting made-- I'm still very interested by it. Will be getting this out of the library (alas, my bookshelves are stuffed-- what does that say about me?) In the meantime, wondering if the conversation extends to the game of "If you were a dog/shoe/motorboat/whatever/, which one would you be?" and "Cast Winnie the Pooh/ the Wizard of Oz among your friends."
Elisabeth (wickett) Thu 21 Aug 08 01:04
Is this book only available in the US?
Sam Gosling (samgosling) Thu 21 Aug 08 03:37
Great Questions. They raise so many points (must be careful not to write another whole book in response). Let's take a stab at a couple: 1. The issue of how different contexts (like home vs. office) constrain how we might express ourselves has parallels in real life. In the field of personality, we use the term "strong situations" to refer to situations where we are constrained in how much our personalities have an opportunity to leak out. Good examples of strong situations would if you're at a funeral or a wedding or in a library or in the army, where your behavior is constrained to different degrees, limiting the extent to which your personality can express itself. The same thing happens with how we might express ourselves in our physical environments too. In a professional context, the situation might dictate that it's not an ideal place to share your views on drug legalization. Of course, the norms can work in both directions; they don't always drive occupants to suppress traits. In one of our studies we examined office spaces in various sectors; when we got to the advertising agency there was clearly huge pressure for all the occupants to make a big show about how creative they were. What this means when you're snooping around people's spaces is that it's CRUCIAL to get an idea of the local display norms. When you go into an office/cubicle space be sure to check out other spaces within that building/industry; it's only then that you'll be able to interpret whether, for example, the lack of decor reflects the occupant's preferences or company policies/norms. More broadly, keep an eye on whether you're looking at a strong or weak situation--as a rule, you'll learn more about personality in weak situations [there are, of course, some interesting exceptions]. 2. Quite often people will make points along the lines of those made by David and Jessica--that their office and home spaces are quite different. When we begin to think about the connections between people and their spaces, this is not altogether surprising. The core point of my book is to show how our physical spaces are reflections our behaviors, values, attitudes, and identities. When at work (vs. home) we often engage in different behaviors (filing vs. gardening), think about different things (accounts vs. why there are cat hairs on the curtains), and express different identities (me-the-lawyer vs. me-the-lover) and we would expect these characteristics to be differently reflected in the different spaces. So it tells us something useful about your different selves to look at both spaces. But see point 3. 3. Having said all that, it's important to be aware of a perceptual bias: We are particularly inclined to notice subtle differences between our own spaces. To you it may seem like your office is MUCH neater than your home. And there may be some truth to this view but typically the differences between Harry at work and Harry at home are dwarfed by the differences between Harry at work and Jane at work (or between Harry at home and Wallace at home). 4. IADWM: Our research confirms your hunch--books and other preferences (like music) can be very revealing about an individual. Elisabeth: The book is available or soon will be in quite a few countries. Can you be more specific?
Elisabeth (wickett) Thu 21 Aug 08 05:46
I'm in Stockholm and v. interested. I'm going shopping today so I'll stop at the Akademibokhandeln and enquire.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 21 Aug 08 06:43
Hi Sam. I haven't read your book, but from the discussion so far, it sounds like you are doing before-the-fact archeology. Facinating. When you were doing the research, and you did your thinking about how you would analyze the data, did you ever consider talking to some archeologists? I suggest you get in contact with my old professor at the University of Michigan, Henry T. Wright. Henry is a deep thinker and the way his mind works, he may be a good person to talk to. There aren't many geniuses around and Henry was a MacArthur Fellow.
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Thu 21 Aug 08 09:51
The distinction between strong and weak situations is interesting. It seems like there's something interesting to be learned from someone's response to a strong situation, as well -- what someone thinks is appropriate behavior for a funeral, for example.
Phillip Guddemi (pguddemi) Thu 21 Aug 08 16:35
Wow. Henry Wright was one of my professors at the University of Michigan too. I agree he would be a good person to talk to. As a cultural anthropologist myself who has read this book, my initial reaction to the ideas of "strong" and "weak" situations would be that strong situations indicate a lot of cultural constraint. In our culture one way we think about culture is the idea that it constrains us -- it's the "formal" stuff of life -- and that when we let up on that constraint, our true individual selves can come out. But this isn't really entirely what I believe. The book brings up, for example, the significance of music in the lives of young people. In Facebook and MySpace, or even in a Blogger profile, a young person's choice of music is extremely significant. As in, "no I couldn't possibly hook up with someone who liked THAT." Certainly personality influences the music someone would put in their profile. But the meaning of the music is totally dependent on the microculture that the music comes out of and helps to define. It is already a social statement that signifies more than "pure" personality. And it's a choice which has its place in "weak" situations of leisure. So personality and culture are interwoven. Which is pretty much what Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead actually thought back in the 1930s, but that's a whole other thing.
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Thu 21 Aug 08 17:24
Okay, I'll admit it: as I read this book, I find myself becoming more and more self-conscious about what I'm wearing, what I'm listening to, what my home looks like... Does knowing more about these things make it easier for us to adjust our self-presentation? Or is the whole point that at some point, the "truth," or some version of it anyway, will inevitably out?
Sam Gosling (samgosling) Thu 21 Aug 08 21:45
Yes, I think this work has a lot in common with archeology. In both cases we are interested in figuring out what people are telling us--deliberately and inadvertently--from the stuff that is left in their wake. In Snoop I talk about the work of William Rathje, founder of the "Garbage Project," which was very explicitly based on the principles of architecture; he observed that archaeologists go through ancient garbage to find out what was done in the past so why can't we go through modern garbage to find out what's being done now? WRT strong and weak situations, we can learn about people in some very strong situations. In fact, the tradition of situational tests in assessment centers was based on the idea that personality emerges in critical situations. One of the forerunners to modern assessment centers was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was set up to identify candidates suitable for work behind enemy lines. There, assessors would observe behavior across a range of standardized critical incidents such as getting a team of people across a small river, trying to organize the construction of a building by two deliberately unhelpful helpers, responding to a stressful interview, etc. It was in these moments that people were meant to reveal their true selves. I'd also like to pick up on this issue of the extent to which we can adjust our self-presentation strategies. Clearly there is some room for flexibility--we can alter our behaviors and environments when the need arises. But the flexibility possible, especially in physical spaces, is limited by a number of constraints. First, it's hard to really change one's behaviors over the long term, which makes it very hard to maintain a false image in a physical space. If I was to be interviewed I could easily just say I was organized, broad minded, and outgoing and that's all that would be needed. But it would be incredibly difficult to express those trait convincingly in a physical space if I wasn't really like that. I remember once getting fed up with never being able to find the right CD when I wanted it so I decided to get my act together and become an organized person. I got some great CD drawers from Ikea, put all the cds back in their cases, sorted the cds by genre, put them in the drawers in alphabetical order, labeled the drawers and felt very pleased with myself. But, of course, the organization (and the smugness) didn't last long because on a day-to-day basis, I just didn't have the discipline to put things back in their correct places when I was done with them. Very soon I was back to chaos because having the space of a genuinely organized person requires the kind of persistent organizational behavior that I couldn't consistently muster. Another reason that we cannot just project any persona we want is that our personalities affect how we perceive the world. People high on neuroticism live in a world full of threats--the car screeching its brakes two blocks away startles an anxious person but goes unnoticed by a calm person. I have a colleague who wouldn't even be able to start work in her office if one of the books had been pulled out of alignment whereas I wouldn't notice for two weeks if you put half the books in my bookshelf on their sides. Of course, it's these differences in perception that contribute to the different behaviors we all do, which in turn affect the spaces in which we live and work. And these differences in perception are exceedingly difficult to fake. A related issue is that even if we did want to create an entirely false impression and decided to dedicate the necessary effort to make it happen it's not clear that we would have the ability to carry it out because, our research shows, we are not very good at knowing how we are viewed by others. For example, in one study of Facebook profiles we asked profile owners how they thought they were viewed by people who had only seen their profiles. We then compared what they said, with the impressions of people who had only seen their profiles. By and large people were pretty clueless about how they were seen by others. If we don't know how we're seen by others, it's hard to even begin manipulating what they think about us. So rather than trying to use my findings to project a false identity, I have stopped fighting it. Instead, I am just having to come to terms with who I am (though it still drives me CRAZY when I can't find that damned CD).
mike (mikaluch) Fri 22 Aug 08 05:02
I haven't read the book yet, I will look for it this weekend. I had an experience that did get me very interested in this topic, and I've always wanted to ask an expert about it. What luck! I was visiting a friend from work with my young children. A couple days later, he brought in a teddy bear in a pink tutu, thinking that my daughter had left it at his house. It wasn't my daughter's and he left it in my office, with a promise to come get it if he figured out who it belonged to. I had a fair sized office, with a lot of parts we had worked on (engineering), books, and personal items. It fascinated me how distracting people found the teddy bear, their eyes wandering back to it again and again. I noticed that only my most inquisitive employees would ask about it, and that some interviewees would also. Meanwhile, other people that had known me for a decade or more would stare at it, but never ask why it was there. A willingness to ask questions is a powerful tool in an engineering firm, and I came to take asking about the teddy bear as a good sign in an interview. Does being an open snoop generally indicate a more inquisitive nature, or did I hire a lot of people who were worried that I was very insecure?
Lisa Harris (lrph) Fri 22 Aug 08 08:40
this is fascinating. I must get this book.
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Fri 22 Aug 08 09:04
Heh, Sam, I suspect our offices look similar. I realized (again looking around my office) that although I'm disorganized in certain areas (one pile in particular has napkins from the kitchen, partly used pads of paper, current and outdated documents, and an empty altoids tin) I'm also very organized in certain areas. For example, I like to tack up work prints of the current photo series I'm working on, so I can live with them for a while. Those are neatly tacked in rows on an otherwise empty corkboard. As I typed that I realized that's less revealing about my personal focus than it might be -- it could indicate that I'm more intentional about photography than the day job, of course. But I suspect it's closer to Sam's story about his CDs: Every few weeks I take everything off of that corkboard, and put new stuff up, and otherwise I don't physically interact with it at all. If I did... it would probably tend towards chaos as well.
Jessica Merz (jessicafm) Fri 22 Aug 08 10:42
I think what stuff I have around me can also be an indicator of how chaotic my life is at that time and place. There are certainly times when my desk and office are tidy, all the files put away, no old documents piled up on the back corner of the desk and the shred bin empty. On the other hand, there are times when my desk has huge piles of current and outdated specs, file folders that need to be put away and an over-flowing shred bin. It can be months at a time that the office will be in one of those two states. So I suppose the question is how much my office would reveal. Perhaps that I'm bipolar? (no, not really)
Dodge (clotilde) Fri 22 Aug 08 13:41
That's the usual state of my office also. When work is slow, or if I get tired of the mess and can't find something, I CLEAN and organise. Then when it's fast and furious things just don't stay in one place for long OR some things stay in THAT pile for a while. I must get to THAT pile soon but I can't afford to put it out of sight or I'll never get to THAT pile. I'd hate for anyone to come into my house though. I work too much and have to prioritise what little energy I have left so only the most important things get done. I used to work at a place that decided, after I'd been there for a week or two, that everyone in the open office would not be allowed personal items on their desks. Everyone grumbled but they were adament. I had always taken a single rose from home and placed it in a vase on my desk. My desk was in the middle of the floor where everybody walked by. After removing all our personal items. I was a bit annoyed when told I had to remove the rose as well! I was even more startled when the Union rep came to have a chat with our manager the day after that. It seems it upset the others in the department when the rose was removed! And was sort of the last straw that made them get in touch with union to complain. I must also get this book. I noticed that you can almost always tell when somebody in a work place is thinking of leaving also. Their personal stuff starts to disappear and they stop keeping things like aspirin and snacks and that extra lipstick in their desk. I know when I get mad and am thinking of jumping ship, I'll clean everything out then slowly it creeps back in as I settle down again.
Phillip Guddemi (pguddemi) Fri 22 Aug 08 18:21
Reading the book I was actually surprised at all the "snooping fallacies." I have long thought that nonverbal communication tends to be more accurate than not, though perhaps often unconsciously. I have been, at least in theory, in the "your slip is always showing" school. But the research in the book shows how fallible our interpretation of personality cues can be, whether they are based on a person's appearance or of the space in which they live. In particular neurotics seem to have a right to be paranoid. People just don't seem to get them right, in any dimension. (By the way, of the five traits tested in chapter 2 -- openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism -- I scored highest in openness, and second highest in both agreeableness and neuroticism.) I have more thoughts about neuroticism. Back when I was a youngster (I'm younger than McCain), it seemed to me that angst and dark moods were liberal more than conservative. It was cool to read Kafka and Camus, and to watch Bergman films, and this was the Woody Allen era after all. This was even true in parts of California, where I grew up (and live today). But recently when the research came out identifying liberals as what William James used to call the healthy-minded, many of my fellow liberals seemed to be proud of this. They were happy to correlate themselves with extroversion. I remember being puzzled by this while websurfing parts of the liberal blogosphere, and I wonder if this represents maybe a real change in eras.
Sam Gosling (samgosling) Sat 23 Aug 08 14:08
Mike's story of the teddy bear in a pink tutu brings up a number of lessons we learned in our snooping research. Two of them are particularly important with respect to snooping. In our studies, we have often noticed an effect similar to the bear-in-a-tutu effect, where people come into a space and then find their attention drawn to a single distinctive object or set of items or area of the space. In fact, I devote a section in my book to why this happens and why it's a problem. The bear stuck out in Mike's office because it was so inconsistent with the other items in it; one can easily imagine another kind of office--perhaps one, like many I have seen, with a lot of sentimental items, very feminine decor, other stuffed animals, etc.--where the bear would go completely unnoticed. Of course, it makes sense that distinctive items grab our attention because in our day-to-day lives it's those items that we usually need to deal with. The problem is that when we are trying to figure out someone's personality, we are looking for consistent trends, not outliers in behavior. So as a snooper we should be attending to evidence of consistent behavior (and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, that's why spaces tend to be so useful--because they accumulate evidence of consistent trends). So the very thing that makes the the teddy-in-a-tutu stick out and grab our attention (the fact that it's inconsistent with the other items around it) is the very reason why we should be extremely cautious about interpreting it as a sign of the occupant's personality. When you are in someone's space its very difficult to avoid paying special attention to these distinctive items but you have to force yourself to do so (I don't want to digress too far, but in my book I talk about a method that an FBI office adopted to do this). Very often objects that are distinctive have found their way into the space for a reason that does not reflect the occupant's personality, very similar to Mike's teddy-in-a-tutu scenario. But there are cases where distinctive items do tell you something and this brings us to the second point I wanted to make with regard to Mike's post. Sometimes an object is distinctive because they way it has been positioned in a space--it's deliberately distinctive, not inadvertently distinctive. That's why when snooping I pay attention not only to what an object is (a teddy in a tutu) and its state (which tells you how it has been used), but also its location because that will often give you clues about the psychological function it serves. Had the Teddy been carefully placed right next to the computer monitor alongside photos of spouses and kids etc. I would know that the teddy was important to Mike. I may not know exactly what the teddy meant but I would know it was important and if I knew him I would probably ask him about it. Isn't it cheating to ask him? No, because it is the snooper's practice of thinking about the space in terms of the psychological functions the items serve that would direct me to ask about the things that appear to be important (like the teddy if it were placed right by the monitor, etc.) and not about the things that appear to there by accident (like the teddy if it were sitting on some random shelf). When people read my book they often want to know what you could learn about someone you had never met from their office or home. It's a fun exercise but it's not very realistic. Far more often than snooping around a complete stranger's space, we are in a situation where we know someone a bit and want to get to know them better. By using a snooper's eye to figure out where the emotional/meaningful keys lie, we can direct our questions to get at things we would ordinarily might not learn for weeks or months, if at all.
Sam Gosling (samgosling) Sat 23 Aug 08 14:50
I think Jessica makes an important point in noting that the state of our spaces also reflects temporary states too (e.g., being very busy in the run-up to a project deadline). There was a long debate in the field of social/personality psychology that mirrored Jessica's concern. The debate centered on the issue of whether behavior is caused by the situation or the person. For example, if someone is being very quiet is that because the situation demands it (she's in a library) or because that's the kind of person they are (she's an introvert)? Of course, like most of these debates, the answer ends up being "both". That is, nearly everyone is quieter in libraries than when at a party (so the situation is important) but across situations introverts are less talkative than extroverts (so the person is important). The parallels to how we should understand physical spaces are clear: when under a tight deadline with a lot going on at work nearly everyone is messier than when things are quiet at work, but across time regardless of whether things are busy or quiet, some people are generally messier than others. The question for the snooper, of course, is trying to distinguish a mess that's the result of a temporary deadline from a mess that's the result of a habitually messy person. And that's where the snooper needs to look at the details of the mess; as Eric Abrahamson in his book, "The Perfect Mess" has observed, there are many varieties of both messiness and neatness. A lasting mess that's the result of a habitually messy person is much deeper in terms of the items that betray long-lasting underlying chaos (e.g., dusty memos that go WAY back mixed with old napkins at the lower levels of mess sediment, paper clips in all kinds of places a self-respecting paper clip should never go) than the temporary mess that sits in a place that is organized at deep structural level (e.g., there IS a coherent filing system, the piles have broad integrity, there is a place for the paper clips). And there are different kinds of neatness too--two desks could have equally neat clean desktops but in one the drawers contain well-maintained desk organizers, sharpened pencils, spare post-it notes, etc. and the other contains all the junk that was swept off the desktop into the drawer in a hasty attempt to affect some semblance of order. In addition to figuring out the particular brand of mess (or neatness), an expert snooper should also look for other clues to that could help figure out if the state is temporary or long lasting (e.g., evidence from the items themselves that there's a project deadline looming).
Sam Gosling (samgosling) Sat 23 Aug 08 15:13
And finally, I wanted to respond briefly to a few other points that arose in response to my last post. I agree with Dodge that there are often clues to a person's job commitment in the workspace. The more I examine spaces the more I am struck by how often inner states are reflected in ones physical space. I'd be interested to hear of any other examples people have noticed. And the case Dodge mentioned where the company did not allow employees to display personal items seems short sighted. Displaying personal items in one's space can play an important role in helping to manage how one feels; for example, Wendi Gardner at Northwestern University has shown that the social snacks (like the photo of a kid or spouse) we keep around us at work are important in fending off feelings of isolation. And by displaying our personal objects we are helping others get to see us as we see ourselves; when that happens (i.e., when people feel known) people tend to be happier, healthier, and more productive. Phillip's point about liberals preferring Kafka and Camus, and Bergman films is consistent with a body of recent research (mainly by John Jost at NYU) on the psychological underpinnings of political orientation. One of the key features of conservatism is resistance to change--conservatives tend to prefer traditions and traditional values and find the unknown that is associated with change to be threatening. (The other key psychological feature of conservatism is tolerance of inequality). Liberals tend to be more comfortable with change, the unknown, complexity, uncertainty, etc. And those core psychological differences are reflected in preferences for media, such as music, films, art, tv, and books, many of which get expressed in our spaces (like our ipods, Netflix records, and bookshelves).
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