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The Personality of Personal Spaces: Your office or bedroom can reveal more about you than you may think

an organized office space
an organizationally-challenged office space
Study participants used intuitively sensible cues to judge office occupants' personality traits such as conscientiousness and openness. Some cues include the degree of organization, clutter, neatness, and decoration.

Depending on what character traits you desire in a mate, you may want to look at his or her office or bedroom. If you’re looking for someone who’s extroverted, you’d probably do better meeting in person. But if it’s conscientiousness and openness you want, take a look in the bedroom. In fact, according to new research from University of Texas at Austin psychologist Dr. Samuel Gosling and his colleagues, personal spaces such as a bedroom and an office are an incredibly rich source of information about certain traits of a person’s personality.

“We will often look around a room and form an impression of the person working or living there,” Gosling said. “I wanted to know how much we really learn and how accurate we are.”

The study, appearing in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association, was conducted by Gosling and Sei Jin Ko, of The University of Texas at Austin, Thomas Manerelli, Ph.D., of the international business school INSEAD and Margaret Morris, Ph.D., of Sapient. They found 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.

“There are a number of applications for the results of this study,” Gosling said. “We sometimes make very important decisions about people on the job, and we may be partially basing those opinions on a person’s work space. It’s important to know if those opinions are prejudicial.

“This is also the sort of thing FBI profilers do,” he said. “They will go into someone’s space to learn about their habits and personalities.”

In two separate studies, Gosling 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 as well as how accurate their assessments seemed when compared to self- and peer-ratings of the office and bedroom inhabitants.

an organized dorm room
a less-than-organized dorm room
Study 1 examined office spaces and Study 2 examined bedrooms. In both studies the highest accuracy was found for the personality trait of openness and the least accuracy found for agreeableness.

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.

“There are links between people and the space we craft around us,” he said. “We leave a footprint, one that can be detected by others.”

Not only did Gosling find that personality raters agreed among themselves, but he also found that they were relatively accurate in their assessments, at least for certain traits. While earlier studies found that people could accurately assess extroversion by viewing photos and video clips but had a harder time assessing conscientiousness and openness, Gosling found the opposite is true for viewing people’s personal environments.

“Should you decide to date someone by looking at his or her bedroom?” asked 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.”

By evaluating the cues in the offices and bedrooms that people use to assess personality traits, the authors found many cues that people use to judge openness and conscientiousness but few for judging the other traits. The researchers 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.

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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