What does your stuff say about you?

You have entered a college student's room. As your eyes scan from left to right, you are shocked to see a neatly made bed, folded laundry, and books not only in the bookcase, but alphabetically arranged. Even the slippers — slippers! — have been placed at a right angle to the bed. Ah, but there it is, sitting in a corner, a beautiful, bright blue bong inside a plastic crate.

 

You have entered a college student's room. As your eyes scan from left to right, you are shocked to see a neatly made bed, folded laundry, and books not only in the bookcase, but alphabetically arranged. Even the slippers — slippers! — have been placed at a right angle to the bed. Ah, but there it is, sitting in a corner, a beautiful, bright blue bong inside a plastic crate.

Before you jump to any conclusions about the occupant of the room, look again at the entire space. And don't be misled by individual, distinctive objects. Sam Goslin, author of "Snoop!: What Your Stuff Says About You," warns that "distinctive items are dangerous." Focus instead on the overall theme of the space.

The bong, for instance, belonged to the globe-trotting friend of the room's tenant who stored it responsibly inside the crate. "So the object did tell you something about the occupant," Goslin said. "It told you that she was responsible and kind and considerate, just not in the way you thought."

Goslin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, studies the connection between people and their stuff by snooping inside residential rooms, office spaces, and even Facebook pages. He spoke to science writers at the recent 2009 CASW New Horizons in Science Briefing in Austin.

Goslin believes people leave traces of their personalities in the spaces they occupy, whether real or virtual. The way books are arranged, what's on a desk, provide clues to the personality of the individual who put them there. "At one point those things weren't there. And if you had something to do with them getting there, then we may have something to learn about you by looking at what those objects are."

Context is also important, explained Goslin. A plastic Virgin Mary, for instance, combined with, say, a crucifix and a Bible, might mean that somebody is pious and an observant. "But not alongside a velvet Elvis Presley, and a bunch of plastic pineapples," Goslin noted.

Other researchers in the field are trying to go farther by compiling anecdotal evidence about the meaning the objects hold for their owners. But Goslin tries to identify and quantify personality types by measuring five "personality dimensions."

Goslin's team visits a person's space, gathering impressions of the dwellings to rate a subject in terms of "dimensions" such as openness (how likely a person is to try new things), conscientiousness (a person's level of self control and discipline), extroversion (whether or not a person is outgoing and enthusiastic), agreeableness (a person's kindness and warmth), and neuroticism (how easily can a person be ruffled or thrown off).

The team compares its ratings of a particular dimension to those provided independently by friends of the subject, and by the subject herself. The more the ratings of each group coincide, the more likely it is that the researchers have correctly identified a personality type.

"In general, some (dimensions) are generally better than others for figuring out how people are, and of course there are a lot of dimensions one could look at," Goslin acknowledged. In fact, he said, the expectation that one can learn about someone by going through her stuff may be fun but not realistic. "It's more realistic if you already know a little bit about the person and you want to now more about them," he said.

Yet if you're planning on snooping on someone anyway, Goslin advised: take notes about the items you see, the state of those items, and their locations.

"That somebody has a desk calendar tells you 'Okay. They at least have aspirations to be organized,'" Goslin joked. "Do you have a calendar on your desk? Is it carefully filled out with all the birthdays in green, and the appointments in blue? Or has it been just put there? I see lots of calendars on peoples' desks that are a testament of their self-delusions about being organized."

Iris Monica Vargas grew up in humble Barrio Bajuras, in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. She completed a double B.S. in physics and biology, and a M.S. in physics from the University of Puerto Rico. After completing a fellowship in astrophysics at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, she pursued another master's degree in Science Writing from MIT. She is currently a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Mass.

Oct. 24, 2009