Sam Gosling didn’t write the book ‘Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer’, but he probably agrees wholeheartedly with the sentiment.
That’s because many who hear of his work for the first time have an ‘isn’t that obvious?’ reaction.
Gosling – author of Snoop: What Your Spaces Say About You – is a social psychologist whose area of research is a voyeur’s dream come true: he explores what our most intimate spaces and possessions reveal about us.
It’s no surprise that our spaces give clues to our personality, but Gosling – who is Professor of Psychology at the University of Austin, Texas – says we didn’t really know what you can learn from people’s spaces till they started this research.
The answers, it turns out, are surprising – and not as simplistic as we’d imagine. Of course what you own is important, but a host of factors – their condition or location, for instance, may reveal more clues than your ownership of it.
Take books. Going into a home and finding rack after rack of volumes might beg the simple assumption the home-owner is a serious reader but the state of the books – pristine, unread, no notes or annotations, impeccable binding – reveals their function. Their location: in the living or public spaces, is another clue to their psychological role. But it’s the books in the bedroom, or bathroom, that give a clue to the real reading habits of the owner, and the possible desire to appear learned over the desire to actually be so.
There are practical advantages to learning how to snoop – or, in less startling terms, to being aware of how to read spaces. “Every day we are faced with the tasks of negotiating our social worlds,” he explained to Texas Monthly in an interview. “Who would make a good employee, who would be a good friend or date? This means getting a good read on others—snooping can help us in that task because it teaches us which cues to trust and which ones to ignore. For example, our research shows that people use clues like how tidy and organised a space is to form impressions of how nice a person is, even though these attributes are in fact completely unrelated to niceness. So a snooper would learn to discount the clues that lead others astray.”
His fascination with snooping started when he was a teaching assistant in his professor Kenneth Craik’s class on personality assessment while studying at Berkeley. “He’d always emphasised that anything a person does potentially provides information about what that person is like,” he said. “The students had created a scale to measure how orderly and organised a person was, and we wanted to test whether the scale worked. So I thought, let’s go and see if people who score high on the scale have tidier rooms than people who score low. We looked at just a few rooms but as soon as I started thinking more extensively about living and working spaces, I realised that there was a wealth of information there, if only it could be tapped.”
Today, though, Gosling has moved into an even more intriguing space: snooping in people’s ‘virtual’ spaces. That means examining someone’s online and social media avataar – spaces where it is believed we have far more control over the image we project – to see how they use those spaces and whether the image they put out is consistent with their image in real life.
His work extends into other fascinating areas of everyday use: are stereotypes helpful or a hindrance in making conclusions about people, for instance? He’s also examining the changes that occur as social media makes it impossible to project different identities in different areas of our lives.
It’s relatively early in his career but he has already won serious acclaim for his research and book, as well as the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution. His interests aren’t limited to ‘snooping’, though: Gosling has also published on the topics of Internet-based methods of data collection and personality in non-human animals; he is currently also collaborating with Austin-based architect Chris Travis on exploring whether it is possible to create low-cost housing based on potential occupants’ psychological needs rather than only spatial ones.