Feature

If you had to decide on dating someone based only on a brief meeting or a close look at his or her bedroom, which would you choose? It turns out that it depends on what you want to find out about him or her.

If you're looking for someone who's extroverted and agreeable, you'd probably do better meeting him or her. But if it's conscientiousness and openness you want, take the bedroom. In fact, according to new research by University of Texas, Austin, psychologist Samuel Gosling, PhD, and his colleagues, personal spaces such as bedrooms and offices are an incredibly rich source of information about people's personalities.

In a study published in the March issue of APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they find that people are remarkably accurate at guessing some aspects of others' personalities--in particular whether they tend to be open and conscientious--based only on a look at either their offices or their bedrooms.

Some may say they're just proving the obvious, says University of California, Riverside, personality psychologist David Funder, PhD, who is familiar with Gosling's work. But, he adds, "the hallmark of a truly brilliant idea is as soon as someone expresses it, it seems obvious."

In fact, the results seem so obvious afterward that before Gosling presents his finding to an audience, he first asks them what they expect he's found. They're generally stumped, until he tells them. Then they say, "Of course," says Gosling, who conducted the research with then Texas student Sei Jin Ko, Thomas Manerelli, PhD, of the international business school INSEAD, and Margaret Morris, PhD, of Sapient, a consulting firm in San Francisco.

"This study is a truly imaginative approach to finding a new way to get clues about personality," says Funder. "It's a genuinely new idea."

A rich source of information

Gosling stumbled onto the idea of using personal environment to assess personality when as part of work for one of his classes he and his students were exploring the issue of validating measures for the personality trait "conscientiousness." He began thinking of the various environmental cues that might indicate whether someone was conscientious.

That rumination led him to his current research. In two separate studies he asked people to rate others' personalities--using the standard and quite broad "Big Five" traits of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and emotional stability--after looking through either their offices or their bedrooms. He then compared how well these personality-raters agreed with each other and how accurate their assessments seemed when compared with self- and peer-ratings of the office and bedroom inhabitants.

The 69 offices examined in the study belonged to employees of five businesses: a bank, a real estate firm, a business school, an architecture firm and an advertising agency. The 78 bedrooms belonged to college students or recent college graduates living on or near a college campus. The researchers used several methods to ensure that the occupants did not make changes to their offices or bedrooms prior to the inspections. For example, one of the incentives for participating in the study was to receive an evaluation of how others perceive them based on their personal space.

Other researchers have done similar studies using photographs of people, video clips, evaluations of people's reputations and the like. But Gosling is the first to try it without providing any direct visual or biographical information about the person whose personality is being assessed. Instead, they had to rely on cues such as personal items (though all photos and references to the occupants' names were covered up), decorating style, neatness and level of organization.

Not only did Gosling find that personality raters--eight in the study looking at offices and seven in the study looking at bedrooms--agreed among themselves, but he also found that they were relatively accurate in their assessments, at least for certain traits. Indeed, while earlier studies found that people could accurately assess extroversion and agreeableness by viewing photos and video clips but were hard-pressed to assess conscientiousness and openness, Gosling found the opposite is true for viewing people's personal environments.

"Should you decide to date someone by looking at their bedroom?" jokes Gosling. "If openness is important to you, sure. But if extroversion is important, you might want to meet them first. It seems to depend on what information you want."

Adds Funder: "Novelists have been doing these character sketches based on bits of information like items left in a room or the contents of a suitcase. Sam Gosling is going the extra mile to get data on whether that's truth or fantasy. The answer is sometimes it's truth--it depends on what you're after."

The reason for the difference between studies, says Gosling, may be that extroversion and agreeableness are interpersonal traits that require more information about how the person interacts with other people. In contrast, openness and conscientiousness may be easier to assess through physical cues in the environment, such as tidiness, organization and decorating style.

Indeed, another part of his studies evaluated the cues in the offices and bedrooms that people could use to assess personality traits. This analysis found many cues that people could use to judge openness and conscientiousness--such as distinctive decorating for openness and neatness for conscientiousness--but few for judging the other traits. In addition, a group of independent judges examined each room and made note of cues they saw in each room.

Gosling and his colleagues then determined which of these cues were "valid." In other words, if a bedroom was neat, they looked to see whether the room's occupant tended to be conscientious. If so, neatness was considered a valid cue for that room. Based on their list of valid cues, the researchers found that people seemed to use valid cues to assess openness and conscientiousness but were less likely to do so to assess the other traits.

The researchers also found that people relied on gender and racial stereotypes--based on their guesses of occupants' gender and race--when few cues were available. So, for example, they tended to use stereotypes to assess emotional stability but not to assess conscientiousness.

"Even though the observers in both studies used stereotypes to form impressions," write the researchers, "they did not base their judgments solely on stereotypes but may have drawn more heavily on the physical cues in the rooms."

Looking ahead

The researchers' next step will be to better understand the process by which people make their personality evaluations. For example, in one study they're manipulating people's assessment of a person's race to see if that affects their personality judgments.

Meanwhile, Funder sees several implications of Gosling's research. For one, the work gets directly at a key concern of personality researchers: figuring out what people with different personalities do differently from each other. In particular, this work could lead to a better understanding of the effects different personalities have on spaces around them, says Funder.

Looking even further out, this line of research could eventually lead to guidelines for designing work and home environments to fit different types of people.

"This research opens an exciting new door to all kinds of exciting things," says Funder. "This kind of originality is great for the field of personality psychology and great for psychology in general."

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.