Wearing, showing, and sharing the many things that make up your personal presence helps you understand yourself.
We all rely on cues to make snap judgments when we meet new people, and those judgments can often be accurate, at least in broad strokes. Physical attractiveness, race, gender, facial symmetry, skin texture, or facial expressions and body language are all factors that contribute to how we form our impressions of people. Those cues may also include our “stuff”: our choices in fashion, jewelry, tattoos, and key chains all provide clues about who we are, whether we intend them to do so or not.
Social psychologist Sam Gosling is interested in checking out our stuff, but not in a creepy, voyeuristic way. He has studied how we ﬁll our spaces with material things, particularly offices and bedrooms, to better understand what those choices say about our personalities. For instance, certain items function as “conscious identity claims,” things we choose based on how we wish to be perceived by others—the posters, artwork, books, or music we display, for example, or the tattoos we ink onto our bodies. We also ﬁll our personal spaces with “feeling regulators”: photographs of loved ones, family heirlooms, favorite books, or souvenirs from travel to exotic locales—anything that serves to meet some emotional need.
“If you are missing someone, you carry a photo in your wallet, or propped up next to your computer, or you value a necklace that somebody gave to you,” Gosling explained. “You do these things to connect to someone as a sort of proxy, until you see that person again.”
Finally, there is what he terms “unconscious behavioral residue,” cues we leave behind in our spaces as a result of our habits and behaviors. A highly conscientious person may alphabetize their books, while the books of someone who is less conscientious would be more haphazard and disorganized.
All these conscious and unconscious cues, taken together, paint a fairly accurate rough sketch of the personality behind them. Gosling’s research showed that it is possible to scan the objects in someone’s personal space to make indirect inferences about certain personality traits. He measured his results using the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. People who score high on openness, for example, tend to ﬁll rooms with a greater variety of books and magazines, while those who score high on conscientiousness tend to have clean, well-lit, meticulously organized bedrooms.
However, Gosling cautions that this is an imprecise method; we can misread those cues. We may realize a given item is significant in some way to the owner, but we may not infer correctly the statement that it is making. Context is key. Position can help distinguish whether an object is serving as an identity claim or a feeling regulator.
If you walk into someone’s office and there is a wedding photo on the desk facing outward, so it can be clearly seen by visitors, that is likely an identity claim. However, if the same photo is turned instead to face the owner, then it likely functions as a feeling regulator, to remind him or her of a loved one.
Every personal item has a story behind it, at least if it holds any real meaning for the owner. Cultural historian Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has argued that we are attached to old photographs, family heirlooms, or seemingly insignificant trinkets precisely because they keep us grounded in the present, and help us remember the past. In that sense, the objects with which we ﬁll our homes play a vital role in how we construct our sense of self.
I might quibble with Csikszentmihalyi’s insistence that the self is a fragile construct—on the contrary, the self strikes me as surprisingly robust despite, or perhaps because of, its remarkable fluidity—but his insights into how we infuse material objects with meaning fall right in line with Gosling’s research. Gosling found that this phenomenon carries over into our online identities as well: One can infer quite a bit about somebody’s personality by perusing his or her website, blog, or even an e-mail address. (Many Internet hipsters still sneer at those who use AOL or Hotmail addresses, for example.) We form very different first impressions of someone whose email address is just their first and last name, versus someone who uses the handle “sexyspacekitty69.”
Nowhere does this become more apparent than on Facebook, where we create detailed personal profiles of our likes and dislikes, share links, play games, take quizzes, and post personal photographs. As of 2011, there were more than 600 million active users. Increasingly, our Facebook pages are where we keep our stuff, and our profiles have become gigantic identity claims.
Gosling drew his conclusions from two related studies. In the first, participants took the Big Five personality test, and those results were compared to the so-called virtual residue (similar to Gosling’s behavioral residue in the object study) strewn throughout their respective Facebook profiles. Analysis revealed significant correlations between the self-reported Big Five test results and certain personality traits suggested by the subjects’ Facebook profile pages.
Extroverts had the most friends and interacted far more frequently than introverts, while those focused, achievement-oriented conscientious types used the site the least. Those with low scores on conscientiousness were far more likely to use Facebook to procrastinate.