Snoop: An Investigation into Possessions, Perceptions, Projections and Personalities
June 26, 2008
Sam Gosling's new book - Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You - blends an engaging and accessible overview of some of the key concepts and research findings in personality psychology and environmental psychology with what amounts to a collection of short detective stories. Snoopology, the art and science of determining "which of your tastes and habits provide particular portals into your personality", attempts to differentiate what our stuff really says about us from what most people might think our stuff says about us.
A snoopologist looks for three basic types of clues to personality - one's "unique pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving that is consistent over time" - in the personal spaces (e.g., bedrooms and bathrooms in the home, and offices or cubicles at work) that we inhabit:
- identity claims: posters, awards, photos, trinkets and other mementos that make deliberate symbolic statements about how we see ourselves that can be for our benefit (self-directed identity claims) or intended for others (other-directed identity claims)
- feeling regulators: family photos, keepsakes, music, books and videos that help us manage our emotions and thoughts
- behavior residue: the physical traces left in the environment by our everyday actions (e.g., objects on our desks, on our floors or in our garbage)
The "big five" personality traits, which I first encountered (and wrote about) in the context of YouJustGetMe, a web site for guessing these traits (and an associated ICWSM 2008 paper on which Sam was co-author), are here enumerated along with well-known icons who exemplify these traits:
- Openness: Leonardo da Vinci; creative, imaginative, abstract, curious, deep thinkers, inventive and value arts and aesthetic experiences.
- Conscientiousness: RoboCop; thorough, dependable, reliable, hard-working, task-focused, efficient, good planners.
- Extraversion: Axel Foley (Beverly Hills Cop); talkative, energetic, enthusiastic, assertive, outgoing, sociable.
- Agreeableness: Fred Rogers; helpful, selfless, sympathetic, kind, forgiving, trusting, considerate, cooperative.
- Neuroticism: Woody Allen; anxious, easily ruffled or upset, worried, moody.
In exploring what it really means to know someone, Sam reviews some of the work by Dan McAdams, including McAdams' book, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, which describes three levels of intimacy:
- traits: the "big five" dimensions of personality listed above
- personal concerns: roles, goals, skills and values
- identity: the thread that ties the experiences of our past, present and future into one narrative
In discussing these levels of intimacy, Sam notes that Arthur Aron has developed a two-person "sharing game" consisting of a sequence of 36 questions that slowly escalate the level of disclosure between two people, enabling them to progress from the first to the second level of intimacy. Unfortunately, the sharing game does not appear to be available online (though a journal paper describing the system is available for a fee),
The "sharing game" reminds me of OneKeyAway, a dating service that adds some new twists to "lock-and-key" parties, in which women are given locks and men are given keys - both worn on lanyards around their necks - and prizes are awarded to couples who find matching locks and keys, offering incentives to both easily engage and disengage throughout the course of a party. I've written an entire blog post about lock-and-key parties and OneKeyAway; here I'll simply note a few relevant items. OneKeyAway introduces two interesting dimensions: a 64-question online questionnaire, which covers topics such as relationship expectations, emotional responsiveness, personal behaviors and habits, hobbies, sexual orientation and preferences, religion and substance; and a MatchLinC keyfob-like device that encodes those responses and is handed out at an event. Participants can "zap" each other - point their MatchLinCs at each other and press a button (vs. inserting a key in a lock), and a red, amber or green light on the device signals their relative compatibility. Couples can, of course, strike up a conversation whether the devices say they are compatible or incompatible (both of which are potentially interesting conversation topics if they find each other attractive). The real power is in the questionnaire, which primes the participants to delve into topic areas that are more likely to lead to progressive disclosure and increasing levels of intimacy.
I don't know whether music is one of the topics in the OneKeyAway questionnaire, but it does frequently rank among the topics that appears to be most conducive to enabling people to connect with and relate to each other. Summarizing a number of related psychological experiments, Sam observes that
music consistently trumps books, clothing, food, memories and television shows in helping people get to know each other.
Elsewhere in the book, he notes that
Web sites are extraordinarily good places to learn about people - perhaps the best of all places.
The book includes a handy table (shown right) to indicate just how well we can really learn about people's personality traits through different channels.
These, in turn, reminded me of some earlier ruminations about music and personality, that were inspired by earlier encounters with the work of Sam and his colleagues, and gives me renewed hope that we'll be able to effectively transmute Strands' early core competencies in music recommendation into broader and deeper recommendations that help people discover and enjoy other people, places and things around them (an explicit part of our mini-manifesto for Strands Labs, Seattle).
The sharing game, OneKeyAway and talking about music preferences can help people move from traits to personal concerns, but to really enable people to know each other at the deeper level of identity, McAdams says we have to set the stage for the telling of a story ... their story: "an inner story of the self that integrates the reconstructed past, perceived present and anticipated future to provide a life with unity, purpose and meaning". This dimension reminds me of my experience in The Mankind Project, where we regularly seek to differentiate data, judgments, feelings and wants. One of the tools we use to do this is careful use of language, or as we like to put it, clear, direct, concise and truthful (CDCT) communication. We often preface our remarks with "the story I make up about X" to help us remember that the judgments we have about people - others and ourselves - typically take the form of narratives we construct based on relatively sparse data, filled in with a multitude of judgments, in our relentless effort to make sense of the world. We also emphasize the use of "I" statements - which is consistent with the findings of James Pennebaker reported in the book that a person's use of first-person pronouns is correlated with honesty (and, interestingly, complex thinking).
Returning to the topic of making sense of people, Gosling reports that the famous Rorschach ink-blot test, in which people describe what they see in ink-blot patterns, is actually not very helpful in assessing personality. A more helpful test is the Picture Story Exercise (PSE) - or Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) - in which people make up a spontaneous story about a random series of pictures, revealing repressed aspects of their personality, especially their motivations and needs for achievement, affiliation and power. Personality seepage can also be effectively captured and analyzed through body movements such as jumping, walking and dancing. Wryly noting that "we sometimes say more with our hips than with our lips", Sam reports on a study by Karl Grammer, at the Ludwig-Boltzmann Institute for Urban Ethology, in which analysis of videotapes and interviews conducted in nightclubs showed that the tightness of a woman's clothing, the amount of skin it reveals, and the "explosiveness" of her movement on the dance floor are all correlated to estrogen levels (indicating fertility, and thus, attractiveness, evolutionarily speaking).
Of course, physiological components of attractiveness are often combined with - or covered up or compensated by - other, more deceptive, dimensions of the outer layers of appearance and behavior we project. This reminds me of some of Judith Donath's insights into the application of signaling theory to social networks, in which she distinguishes among the relative costs and benefits of handicap signals, index signals and conventional signals, and explores how fashion is largely a manifestation of the latter, relatively inexpensive, type of signal.
Fortunately, however, for those of us who are concerned or obsessed with authenticity, Sam claims that our behavioral residue is difficult to consciously manipulate, and underneath whatever appearances we may try to cultivate, our real personalities persistently try to express themselves. This is corroborated by experimental results from Self-Verification Theory, which suggests that people want to be seen as they really are (or at least as they see themselves), even if that means that "negative" aspects of their personalities are seen.
One of the more controversial chapters in the book addresses the issue of stereotypes. Given that we can only perceive narrow aspects of others' personalities, we naturally tend to fill in the gaps of the stories we make up about them with information based on our perceptions others who we judge similar, based on gender, race, or where they live (e.g., with respect to red states and blue states). Unfortunately, for those of politically correct persuasion, many of these stereotypes do have at least a kernel of truth. For example, women tend to score higher in the Big Five trait of neuroticism than men, i.e., they tend to be more anxious, less even-tempered, less laid-back, more emotional and more easily stressed tan men, and it turns out that, generally speaking, conservatives are "neurologically more resistant to change" and liberals are more extroverted.
And music stereotypes turn out to be very helpful in forming correct impressions of people, although not all music genres are created equal, with respect to the personality traits their fans inadvertently reveal. For example, affinity for Contemporary Religious music turns out to be much more revealing about personality, values and alcohol and drug use than a love of Soul music or, more surprisingly to me, Rap.
Another dimension that reveals aspects of our personalities is hoarding. Sam notes that we have "an ingrained instinct to collect stuff" (which may be why Amy Jo Kim includes "collections" as one of the five key elements of what makes online games - and online social networking - so addictive). He shares a definition of hoarding as "the repetitive collection of excessive quantities of poorly usable items of little or no value with failure to discard those items over time". With the caveat that "little or no value" is a rather subjective label, I must admit that I tend to hoard books, academic papers and wines. This, in turn, leads to a discussion of what our workspaces say about us ... but I'm going to hold off saying more about that (for now) ... I've been composing this blog in bits and pieces for over a month now, and I want to wrap it up (and if anyone has actually read this far, you may be thinking the same thing). [In fact, given the change in default formatting that TypePad has instituted in the interim, this blog post didn't even get assigned a usable URL, so I've had to repost it :-(]
However, before closing, I will note that in the "What Counts?" column of the May 2008 issue of Conscious Choice, a few interesting statistics - from a TreeHugger article on "Spring Cleaning: '101 Reasons to Get Rid Of It'" - are listed:
- 1.4 Million: Americans who suffer from hoarding or clutter.
- 80: Percentage of things Americans own that they never use.
Unfortunately, it's not clear what proportion of the 1.4 million sufferers are the actual hoarders and how many are family, friends and/or coworkers of the hoarders ... for example, I think my wife suffers much more from my hoarding than I do.
Just to come [nearly] full circle again, the issue starts out with a letter from the editor entitled Fire and Rain, that talks about the way that music influences us,
I can’t help but pay special attention to the songs that randomly pop into my head. ... Music has the magical ability to transport and transform us in ways that impress me on a daily basis.
I've just finished - and plan to write another long blog post about - another fabulous book: This is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel Levitin ... in which he talks about how and why some music gets stuck in our heads ... and a variety other aspects of our obsession with music ... and which offers an interesting complement to some of the insights that Sam shares in his book.
Returning to Sam's book, one issue that came up repeatedly (for me) throughout the book was the difference between what our words and actions really say about us, and how others generally interpret what our words and actions say about us. Sam notes a number of scientific experiments that have shown that we often make mistaken assumptions about people. But if most people make the same inferences - however mistaken - about others, won't this have an effect on their interactions with them ... and eventually, on their personalities? As Sam notes in the book:
Attractive people may be treated differently in social interaction, a phenomena that actually leads to differences in how they behave and how they seem themselves.
Theodor Adorno noted a similar phenomena in his 1951 book, Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life (which I read about in a recent Wall Street Journal book review, Capitalism and its Malcontent):
The sound of any woman's voice on the telephone tells us whether the speaker is attractive. It reflects back as self-confidence, natural ease and self-attention all the admiring and desirous glances she has ever received.
So if others' assumptions about us affects their behavior toward us, and their behavior affects our behavior, and our behavior over time affects our personalities, won't others' assumptions - however erroneous - affect our personalities? Do we tend to become more of the people others' see us as? I'm reminded of the lyrics from a Lyle Lovett song: "If I were the man that you wanted, I would not be the man that I am" ... but I digress...
I don't mean to say that personality and social psychology does not yield many interesting interesting insights - indeed, Sam's book is one of the most interesting books I've ever read - I just wonder how much impact these insights will have on society. How much does what our behavior really mean matter, in comparison to how others interpret our behavior (and its residue)? Should we be doing more scientific experiments or conducting more polls? Would we rather be right or happy (or popular)?
Of course, if snoopology catches on, perhaps more of us can be right, happy and popular - about and with each other.