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.
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.