When starting a blog about relationship between people and space, the first topic that comes to my mind from a psychologist point of view is how does one’s home or workspace reflect their personality? We actively shape our environment to suit our needs, but are cues from our living space enough for strangers to learn something about us?
photo by hownowdesign
I think that when we see someone’s apartment, we instantly imagine how they live their live there. Do they read much? Listen to music? What kind of music? Collect vinyl records? Cook a lot? Do sports? And, based on conclusions about their behaviour, we draw further conclusions about their personality. But, are those impressions accurate? Are people who read a lot intellectual and broad-minded, and people who do sports energetic and positive?
One of the problems for observers when “reading” behavioral cues in space is that we don’t project just our real self into our place, but also who we would like to be. On our bookshelves we display books that we haven’t read, or we build big well equipped kitchens even though we don’t cook much. Some of us have always dreamed about relaxing in a hot bath after a long day at work, but now that we actually own a multi-functional bath tub, we always seem to have enough time for just a quick shower. In other words, those cues can be very misleading when telling a story of how we live our life.
photo by yvestown
When we can’t learn much about inhabitants’ behaviour, we may focus on symbolic aspects of their space – use of materials, shapes and color. When people use bright colors in their apartment, is it safe to conclude that their personalities are equally bright and cheerful? It seems too simple to be true, and anyway, wall color is possibly more a matter of fashion trend, then a reflection of inhabitant’s personality. I hear that purple is “in” these days. And then, some of us consciously try to express themselves through design of our place, while others don’t care so much as long it’s functional. Or let someone else design it for them. This probably makes our judgements even more inaccurate.
All in all, is anything a place tells us about its inhabitants true?
photo by rogue-designs
Samuel D. Gosling and colleagues (2002) made an attempt to answer some of these questions. They asked students to make conclusions about occupants’ personality after seeing their bedrooms. Students made ratings of occupants’ personality traits based on the Five Factor Model that includes
- agreeableness – being friendly and compassionate vs. cold and unkind;
- openness to experience – being inventive and intellectually curious vs. conventional and less interested in art and science;
- conscientiousness – being efficient and organized vs. messy and careless;
- emotional stability – being nervous and insecure vs. secure and confident;
- extraversion – being outgoing and energetic vs. solitary and reserved.
Students’ ratings were compared with occupants’ peer and self-report personality assessments to determine whether their estimates were successful.
photo by hownowdesign
Results of this reasearch showed that observers tend to form accurate judgments about occupants’ openness to experience and conscientiousness.
Conscientiousness is associated with clean, organized, uncluttered, comfortable, and inviting living environments and observers were able to read those cues well.
photo by mismisimos
Observers associated openness to experience with distinctiveness, decoration, quantity or variety of books, magazines, and compact discs. They were right about those cues, too.
photo by LethaColleen
Rooms that were cheerful, colorful, clean, organized, neat, comfortable, inviting living spaces, with few clothes strewn about were believed to be occupied by agreeable individuals. However, those cues weren’t related to occupants’ actual levels of agreeableness. Very few of the coded cues were related to the occupants’ levels of extraversion and emotional stability, and the judgements about those traits were mostly inacurate.
photo by fragmented
To answer the question about our spaces telling truth about our personalities, I must admit I’m surprised by the fact that we can accurately infer 2 out of 5 basic personality traits of complete strangers just by observing their living spaces. I expected that there would be too much other factors which would blur that insight, like whether inhabitants could afford to decorate their space to their taste and whether they are interested in interior design. Even more, observers in this reasearch had less information to work with than we do in everyday life since photos of occupants and references to occupants’ names were removed from their spaces. This could mean that we are even more successful in reading environmental cues.
It is important to note that some personality traits may not be linked with environmental cues (emotional stability, extraversion) and that we tend to interpret some cues inaccurately (agreeableness). However, it makes me happy to know that the notion of people leaving messages in space, and other people reading it, has some empirical support, since it is the main topic I wish to write about. Buildings do speak, and we are sensitive to what they have to say.
Gosling S.D., Ko, S.J., Mannarelli, T., and Morris, M.E. (2002) A Room With a Cue: Personality Judgments Based on Offices and Bedrooms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 82, 3, 379-398. (link)