The importance of being snoopy


Back in the 1980s there was a board game called Scruples. A typical question might go something like this:

You are in your boyfriend/girlfriend’s bedroom. He/She’s popped out to the shops for fifteen minutes and you let your eyes wander around the room. All of a sudden you notice a hard bound exercise book on the dressing table, the front cover reads “Diary. Private! Do not read!”

What do you do?

You would then be offered some options and other players would try and guess how morally bankrupt you are. So what would you do here? Would you

leave it alone and say nothing

  • mention it to your partner and harass her/him to let you have a look

  • quickly read it while she is out

    Ok, so you do the right thing. You are undoubtedly a better person than me. I would sit, wrestle with my conscience and then have a peek. I would do this despite knowing it is the wrong thing to do, despite anxiety about what I might find, and despite the risk of getting caught. I‘d do it because I am nosey and curious, because I want to know what makes people tick and because pretty much all the time I’m trying to puzzle this out. Because of this I became interested first in literature and then in social science because both promise to give me insights into what people think and how they work. Also because of this I bought Sam Gosling’s Snoop from Nottingham University bookshop the other week.

    Snoop: What your stuff says about you is a quick and dirty tour of psychological research relating to the way we reveal our personality through the myriad of traces we leave in our environment.  Gosling demonstrates that your bedroom, iPod playlist, choice of clothing, desk and bookshelf reveal all sorts of facets of your personality (both intended and unintended). Broadly Gosling’s point would be that I could learn as much (maybe more) from looking at the organisation of my girlfriend’s bedroom as I could from reading her diary. The level of order in the room, the placement of photos of family, the decision to include sloganeering posters or fine art pictures, the range of reading material on the bookshelf and the CDs in her collection would be likely to tell me a lot about her. Analysing her stuff would reveal things about her that it would be difficult for her to control. A diary on the other hand (especially one that was left out in plain view), might be written consciously to manage my opinions. So the true snooper can satisfy his curiosity at all times by pulling together clues and evidence from the fragments of personal debris.

    Gosling’s argument is that your stuff provides a window to your personality. You have a constant impact on the environment around you that is very difficult to fake. Anyone can buy a copy of War and Peace to look intellectual, but if you don’t read it the spine won’t be broken, the pages won’t get dog eared. What if you sit it on your bookshelf next to a Dan Brown, how does that change how people see you? If you have carefully alphabeticised your bookshelf – another personality trait is revealed. And if the bookshelf is straining under the weight of a wide range of books of all different types and topics, we can pick up still more. As Lloyd Grossman used to say “what kind of person would live in a house like that?”

    Gosling uses a personality trait framework that he refer to as the ‘big five’ in this book. His discussion of personality is organised around these five traits. S Srivastava describes these traits in the following way on his page on Measuring the Big Five Personality Factors.

    Extraversion (sometimes called Surgency). The broad dimension of Extraversion encompasses such more specific traits as talkative, energetic, and assertive.

  • Agreeableness. Includes traits like sympathetic, kind, and affectionate.
  • Conscientiousness. Includes traits like organized, thorough, and planful.
  • Neuroticism (sometimes reversed and called Emotional Stability). Includes traits like tense, moody, and anxious.
  • Openness to Experience (sometimes called Intellect or Intellect/Imagination). Includes traits like having wide interests, and being imaginative and insightful.
    If you want to measure yourself on these traits go to John Johnson’s webpage and undertake the free tests that are there.


    Gosling calibrates a range of different observations (e.g. viewing peoples bedrooms and making some judgements based on what you see) against big five psychological testing. What Gosling then goes on to say is that different  bits of your stuff are good for telling you different things about your personality. So your bedroom is good for assessing your openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism, while your Facebook profile is better for judging your extraversion. Some of this is common sense, but not all, some confounds you and makes you realise when you are jumping to unfair conclusions. One of the points that he makes is that the easiest place to mislead people is in an interview or date. During a short relatively formal encounter we can mask aspects of our personality making ourselves appear differently from how we actually are. So, despite my own tendency to be low on conscientiousness and agreeableness on any given day I can scrub up and make an effort not to engage in contentious arguments. Over a long period this is more difficult, but my low conscientiousness is likely to become obvious in an overflowing in tray or higgledy-piggledy bookshelf before people notice that I only get my hair cut on an irregular cycle and that I require a serious amount of effort to proof-read a document without getting incredibly bored.


    So what are the career development implications of this. Well is the first is probably to realise that my high on openness personality is probably going to throw quite a bit of stuff into this blog that only has a pretty tenuous link to what it is supposed to be about. More seriously, I think that if you are interested in psychometric testing for advisory or selectio
    n purposes there will probably be a bit in here to make you think. Gosling’s investigation of personality and how it reveals itself through environment may have potential to impact on selection and personality profiling processes in some fairly interesting ways. Fancy asking people to send a photo of their desk or their iPod playlist as part of a selection process? Probably not, but after reading Snoop you won’t be able to dismiss it altogether.


    Perhaps more fruitful as an area for inquiry is the way that people arrive at decisions about people’s personalities based on environmental signals. So if your office is a mess people tend to jump to some conclusions about you. Some of them are likely to be right (i.e. they correlate with what a personality test would find) but some are wrong. It is worth thinking about how you judge people’s competence based on these sorts of signals and indeed on how people might be judging you. Not that it is very easy to change just because you decide that you are sending out the wrong signals, but can be helpful to know.


    All in all Snoop is a lively read that will make you think about how you interact with the world around you and how you read and draw conclusions about others. You never need read another diary – you’ll be too busy working out what the arrangement of someone’s sock drawer means.

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    1. When I first saw the title wondered if was about being the character Snoopy or being nosey! Seems like a good book – there’s not enough time to read all the good books out there. Regarding our possessions, (dis)organisation, homes, cars, wardrobes…revealing aspects of our personalities – yes I agree they do, in addition to revealing what we don’t want to reveal (if that makes sense!). This includes our aspirations, disappointments, and perhaps culture and class.As you will no doubt know, employers can and do look at applicants’ online presence. Interviewers have been known to ask about books candidates have read and/or their hobbies, so looking at their iPod playlist is perhaps not so far fetched. Also, brand/image management is big business and a lot of the thinking coincides with the points you make based on Gosling’s book. Thanks for your post.

    2. Re employers looking at your online profile. I think that the interesting thing here is that people are currently looking for problems ‘have they done anything that might make us uneasy’ or possibly looking for evidence of achievement ie. ‘is there any evidence of anything that might be useful to us’. These are essentially looking for the extremes, what Goslings book might help you to do is to read those who are in the middle – so their Facebook profile neither tells of rampant drug taking nor of enormous professional achievements – but it might tell you if they are extraverted, open to new experiences etc and these might be useful in you forming a judgement on them.I’m not sure how far I’d want to go with this. I think that there are huge problems in trying to work out suitability for a job based on things that are created for a completely different purpose – but it is worth a thought at least.

    3. Thanks for your response. Yes some employers look for extremes. I think some look for other aspects too, I know some of ‘us’ do this with colleagues – upon meeting someone or before meeting them, people search for that person online to gain an insight, and perhaps in some cases to gain an advantage (this is suggested by some ‘experts’). I see this trend of online searches only growing, and as with so many things, there are positives and negatives.

    4. inspired, I started organising my books last night, thinking that would learn them. I got bored and confused after a bit though. Funnily enough my CDs are and always have been in alphabetical order. I think it’s a visual thing as they’re all the same size. But overall, looking at my stuff throughout the house (and this is the thinned out version after the move) I reckon it might be enough to be diagnosed with some mental disorder by Snoops….

    5. Ha! Think if we were honest Tennie, most of us would be diagnosed with a whole host of disorders!If you are a snoop, like me, check out some videos on YouTube – people sharing their collections of all sorts of things, giving tours of their homes, offices, bedrooms, wardrobes, showing contents of their bags, bathroom cabinets!…

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