How to Be a Snoop

The way you arrange your home or office may reveal surprising results

Sam Gosling
Author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, Sam Gosling. Marsha Miler

In his new book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, Sam Gosling makes the case that maybe walls can talk. The personality psychologist and University of Texas at Austin professor studies bedrooms, offices, Web sites and iPod playlists for personality clues, and has found, among other trends, that inspirational posters signal a neurotic; an organized space with sports décor, a conservative; and a messy room with books, an eclectic music collection and maps, a liberal. I recently caught up with Gosling to talk about the “special brand of voyeurism” he calls snoopology.

How did you get started snooping?
At Berkeley, where I did my graduate work, my advisor was frustrated that personality psychologists spent most of their time not studying people but self-reports by people—what people say they do. He wanted to study what people really do. But that is difficult. If I wanted to study you, how would I do it? Follow you around all day? How would I do it unobtrusively? And so I thought, well, some of the things we do leave a trace in the world. So maybe we can figure out what people do by looking at the spaces where they spend a lot of time.

You look for “behavioral residue?”
We do all kinds of behavior everyday. Much of it doesn’t leave a trace, like when we smile or say hello, but a subset does, like when we tidy up our book collection. Behavioral residue is the residue of our actions, and our actions are the meat of everyday personality.

How do you collect data in, say, a bedroom?
We cover up names or anything that’s going to compromise a subject’s anonymity. We send in volunteers whose job is to ask, what is this person like? Next we send in a different team to inventory the place. What is it like? Is it colorful? Is it bright? Are there books? Then we give the occupants themselves a personality test and get reports on the occupants from their good friends. We compare all of those bits of information to find out what people form impressions of, which ones they form accurately, where they make mistakes and which cues they use.

Can you describe some of the items you saw and the overall state of an office you snooped in recently, and explain what conclusions you made about the occupant’s personality?
There were all these teaching awards up and you could think, well this person is pompous, arrogant and wanting to display their awards to everybody. But they were actually all placed so the person could see them himself. So clearly being a good teacher was much more important for the occupant himself. They weren’t really there for the show of others.

The other thing about his office was it was a nice, comfortable space for students to come sit. This suggested the person was extroverted because extroverts, we know, have these places designed to essentially lure people in and get them to stay.

He’s somebody who cares about people, but not somebody who is a wild, outgoing, loud extrovert. That was indicated by combining the arrangement of his furniture with his music collection, all of which were the sorts of things we expect people who are more into calming themselves to have, a lot of classical music, a lot of jazz. There was some pop music there, which is more typically associated with extroverts, but that pop music was at the end of the bookshelf, not right where the person could reach it and play it.

There was also some evidence of very broad interests, if you looked at the content of the books and magazines and the mementos that had been collected from exotic places around the world. There were a lot of things in the office. It was very full. But it was very well organized. There were dissertations on the bookshelves from his former graduate students. They were organized by year.

In terms of the traits, I see him very high on openness. He was also high on conscientiousness. He gets things done on time. He’s reliable and task-oriented. In terms of his identity, his identity is very much tied up with being a teacher. What I mean by that is if you were to say, “So who really are you?,” then, I think one of the first things to come up would be, “Well, I’m a professor. I teach.” And that's not true of many of the professors here who are far more identified with being researchers or writers.

Aren’t a lot of these findings common sense?
It’s been somewhat a source of frustration for me that when I report a lot of the findings, people say, well, that’s obvious. But some of the things that are obvious turn out to be absolutely wrong. One of the most interesting mistakes is overgeneralizing about someone’s being neat and tidy. When you have an organized, uncluttered place, it does mean the person is conscientious. But people go too far and also infer that the person’s agreeable, whereas those clues are not diagnostic of that at all.

What advice do you have for everyday snoopers?
One is not to interpret a single object. Novice snoopers will go in and see a collection of Russian dolls and say, oh, this person is an expert on Russia, or they’ve visited Russia. Well, sure, but there are many reasons you could have those things in your space. Look for themes. Be cautious of items that are highly distinctive because those, by definition, are inconsistent with the themes in the room.

Why aren’t medicine cabinets revealing?
Despite the widespread belief that medicine cabinets say a lot, the sorts of things we have in them are so standard there’s not a rich palette of expression–unlike music, where there’s so much.

Where do you draw the line when it comes to snooping?
I think looking at people’s diaries, their journals, their trash and all those sorts of things will provide useful information. But, of course, doing so may compromise your relationship with that person.

Do people want to be seen for who they really are—or some cultivated image?
I think the automatic assumption of many people is to say well, that person is clearly trying to send a false impression. But what we know from the research is that many of the things that people are trying to tell others deliberately are authentic statements.

It would be hard for you to fake it because it takes such concerted effort to do that. You have to live the life of a broad-minded person or a conscientious person to have a space reflecting that. I tried to organize my cd collection. I said, I’m going to be the person who’s organized. And, of course, it only lasted for a day because I just don’t live my life that way. The other reason is that your personality affects how you see the world, so even if I was going to make my place look conscientious, I wouldn’t even think of some of the things that a truly conscientious person would have. I think, generally, people aren’t trying to fool us.

Have you always been a snoop in some sense?
Yeah. But quite frankly, I think most people have always been snoops. I think we’re intrinsically interested in other people. Other people have historically provided us the greatest threats and opportunities so I think we’re biologically prepared to detect what other people are like. I think it’s very important for us to feel that others, and ourselves, are kind of predictable.