Science Writers 2009: Day 3

The third day of the Science Writers 2009 conference was hosted by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization devoted to improving the quality of science writing. Each year, as part of the annual Science Writers conference, CASW’s New Horizons sessions, which are hosted by a different university each year, showcase emerging research in multiple areas of science.   My favorite session on day 3 was a session on personality by a professor of psychiatry.

Personality: What you stuff says about you

George Carlin once quipped, “That’s the whole meaning of life…trying to find a place for your stuff.” In his presentation, UT-Austin’s Dr. Sam Gosling discussed his research about personal belongings and what they reveal about personality. 

If you’ve ever seen a set of door rooms, or a row of office cubicles, you know that different people will do very different things with identical spaces.  The frat boy’s dorm room will look no more similar to the room of goth chick, than my many post-it laden desk looks next to that of an OCD-suffering, super neat colleague.  The way we organize our spaces, the items we keep in it, and the type of mood we try to portray in that space say a lot about our personality, even if we don’t intend it to do so.

  • On of the first processes that links us to our spaces is the “identity claim” — those things we do that declare ownership.  From the type of plaque we put on our desk, to the stickers that someone puts on their dorm room door, these are things that we put in our space that are purposely meant to let others know that this is our space.
  • The second process, which is not necessarily a conscious form of communication, involves changes we make to our space that affect how we feel — wall colors, music choices, photos, etc.  Although these things are more private, they tell people entering our space a lot about us.
  • The third is what Gosling called “behavioral residue.”  When we occupy a space, we leave marks behind, such as making marks in the books we read a lot, or leaving things in a certain place.  These are the unintended consequences of our actions.

To conduct his experiments, Gosling sent a team of researchers into a space and asked them to take notes about the space, and their impressions of the person’s personality on five dimensions.  Not wanting to bias the results by allowing the note-takers to see what the person looked like, he considered removing any visible photos of the person prior to the experiment.  However, the photos that someone chooses to display are an important part of the second level of interaction listed above.  To overcome this issue, he placed post-it notes over the faces of the owners of the space in any visible photos, so that the note takers could make unbiased observations about the person’s personality.

There were five personality dimensions included in their observations:

  1. Openness to Experience (intellect, imagination, curiosity, creativity)
  2. Conscientiousness (order, duty, deliberation, self-discipline)
  3. Extraversion (sociability, assertiveness, activity, positive emotions)
  4. Agreeableness (trust, nurturance, kindness, cooperation)
  5. Neuroticism (anxiety, depression, moodiness, vulnerability to stress)

He had a separate team go in and physically record (through notes, videos and still photos) the space being examined, and asked people who personally knew the owner of the space to fill out a questionnaire about the owner of the space.

Gosling’s team also examined other types of spaces, such as personal websites and Facebook pages, and compared their results to data collected during short meetings, info collected on the questionnaires completed by social acquaintances, and information on the person’s ten favorite songs.

Of the personality dimensions being examined, Facebook pages and Social behavior (via questionnaire) were the best indicators of extraversion, while personal websites, dorm rooms, offices and favorite music were best suited to indicate openness.  Conscientiousness was best demonstrated through personal websites, followed by dorm rooms, and neuroticism was evenly distributed between personal websites, dorm rooms and social behavior.

Gosling cautioned that there is a danger in putting too much emphasis on any one object within a person’s space.  He provided an example of a straight-A student, well known for her conscientiousness, who had an emasculate door room.  As the note-takers went through the room, they found drug paraphernalia packed away neatly in a box in the corner of her room.  The researchers were convinced that this was a sign of a deep routed secret in this person’s life, and that the outward portrayal of conscientiousness was an attempt to cover drug use.  As it turned out, the student’s roommate was going away for a semester, and ask her to look after her things.  So, being the conscientious person she is, the student collected all the belongs, filed them in a box, and put them in the corner so they wouldn’t be disturbed.  Gosling’s stressed is that it is important to look for themes among the belongs, and not analyze the belongings individually.  One object can have multiple meanings, and by watching for patterns you can get the best indication of personality.

A person’s space, and the stuff they put in it, reveal a lot about a person’s personality.  This had me thinking that I really need to clean my office.  Of course, Gosling also said that, unlike things we do to try to shape how people think about us, spaces don’t lie (which is why they make such good indicators).  If that’s true, and spaces can’t lie, then maybe cleaning my office would be futile.  After all, maybe I’m just a post-it over-using, messy office kinda gal.

Note: the slides from Dr. Gosling’s presentation are available on the CASW New Horizons website (with free registration).

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