Personality Cues in Offices

Sometimes it’s really hard to appreciate psychology research. All findings seem so familiar and intuitive, and it feels like you would’ve guessed it without some social scientists spending their time and (our) money on such obvious experiments. In a way, everyone is their own psychology expert. And it should be that way. But could you really guess reasearch findings in advance? I don’t think so – it’s just one of those cognitive biases that makes us feel we know more than we really do. You can try if you don’t belive me: which personality traits do you think can be correctly inferred by observing somebody’s office? Can you appraise one’s emotional stability by looking their office? Of extraversion? Or agreeableness?

Does here work an agreeable person?; photo by blupics

Interior design acts as a form of nonverbal communication, sending messages to potential visitors and thus affecting their impressions of the occupant. That’ why home design is related to some personality traits, and it’s proven that, by examining a stranger’s home, visitors can accurately infere ocupants’ consciousness and openness to experience. Can the same traits be guessed in an office setting? Presuming that we don’t show all aspects of our personality at work and at home, it’s worth to investigate this question more closely.

The importance of desk and visitor chair placement; photo by

A field study of university faculty occupying single offices showed that we can learn something about them just by the placement of their table and visitor chair (McElroy at al.,1983). Researches compared workers who positioned their desks to face a wall to those who placed desks to face the door (as a barrier between the occupant and visitors). The visitor-chair arrangement entailed three possibilities:

(a) a closed arrangement, where the desk acts as a complete barrier (applicable only when the desk is not facing wall),

(b) an intermediate arrangement, where the chair is adjacent to the side of the desk with the desk acting as only a partial barrier, or

(c) an open seating arrangement whereby the visitor’s chair is pulled forward to such an extent that the desk plays no barrier role.

Task orientation vs. interpersonal orientation; photo by petercooperuk

Occupants of offices using a desk facing wall reported significantly greater degrees of extraversion and higher interpersonal orientations (as opposed to task orientation) than did occupants of offices with a desk facing the door and serving as a barrier to visitors.

Extraversion or just good use of space?; photo by beketchai

Occupants of offices characterized by an open visitor-chair arrangement reported higher internal locus of control (believing that events result primarily from their own behavior and actions as apposed to fate, chance, or powerful others) than did occupants of offices with either an intermediate or a closed chair arrangement.

Intuitively sensible cues are valid to some extent; photo by Shek’s Aperture

Another study investigated both office design cues for personality traits and the accurateness of visitors’ impressions based on those cues (Gosling et al. 2002). Observers relied on intuitively sensible cues to judge occupants’ traits and were able to accurately form impressions about occupant’s  conscientiousness, openness to experience and extraversion.

Conscientiousness is associated with order, efficiency, and self-discipline, and observers corectly linked it to well-organized, neat, and uncluttered offices.

Neat and uncluttered; photo by tomas carrillo

Individuals who are high in openness to experience tend to be curious, imaginative, and unconventional and to have wide interests. They occupied distinctive and unconventional offices.

Distinctive and unconventional; photo by monster town

Extraversion is associated with sociability, enthusiasm, talkativeness, and assertiveness. Compared with introverts, extraverts’ offices appeared to be crafted to encourage interaction; they were relatively warm, decorated, and inviting.

Warm and decorated; photo by Deco-Marce

Very few of the coded cues related to the occupants’ levels of agreeableness and emotional stability in an intuitively compelling way, so visitors weren’t able to correctly appraise those traits. That’s the answer to the question from the beginning. Did you expect visitors to be able to correctly infer occupants’ agreeableness and emotional stability from  cues in their offices? Or did you know that’s it would be possible only for conscientiousness, openness to experience and extraversion? Whatever the case, I belive that this research shows that communicating our personality through our environment isn’t just prefered, but also inevitable.

What do we do when there are no valid cues? We rely on stereotypes; photo by Bastien Vaucher


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)

McElroy, J.C., Morrow, P.C. and Ackerman R.J. (1983) Personality and Interior Office Design: Exploring the Accuracy of Visitor Attributions. Journal of Applied Psychology 68, 3,541-544.

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