Q: Do people judge me based on the appearance of my office or bedroom? Are those judgments accurate?
A: According to a study from 2002, yes and yes.
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2002, a set of researchers set out to examine the residue that people leave behind, and what that residue says about them.
- By “residue” we mean the changes people make to their familiar physical environments that can be detected even if a person is not present.
- Two environments that people spend a great deal of time in are a person’s work office and their bedroom.
The researchers suggested that there may be two main ways that people interact with these physical environments that leave clues about their personality: 1) identity claims, and 2) behavioral residue.
- Identity claims are ways that a person chooses to decorate their personal spaces to communicate a personal taste, identity, and aesthetic. This could be cultural symbols (the researchers suggest that a poster of Martin Luther King, Jr. or university memorabilia would be cultural symbols), colors, textures, or objects of personal or sentimental value. Even though sentimental objects communicate a somewhat obscure message (if you don’t disclose the meaning behind it) it could still communicate a message that you’re a sentimental person.
There are two types of identity claims – those resulting from design choices that a person chooses for their own benefit (self-directed) and choices that a person chooses to communicate a message to others (other-directed).
In other words, I could use red to decorate my office simply because red is my favorite color or because it helps invigorate me during work (self-directed), OR I could use red to decorate my office because I want to communicate a vigorous, aggressive message to my co-workers (other-directed).
Some people are honest with their messages to others (maybe MLK, Jr. really is a hero of yours), and some people are less than honest (maybe you put up a Yale poster not because you went to Yale, but because you want others to assume you did).
- Behavioral residue is left behind when people naturally interact with their environments and it communicates messages about their behavior. For instance, a person who puts all their CDs in alphabetical order is not necessarily intentionally communicating that they are a conscientious or orderly person, but that is the message that is received.
Behavioral residue can be internal or external.
Internal residue is evidence of the ways a person interacts with their personal space (organizing CDs, leaving papers strewn about a desk, keeping all pencils in one place, etc.).
External residue are objects or symbols brought in from outside that communicate something about the way you live (i.e. a snowboarder leaves a snowboard behind their desk or bed).
- To test their theory that people can tell a lot about someone by the residue they leave, the researchers got a few assistants to go into offices at a real estate agency, an advertising agency, a business school, an architectural firm, and a retail bank and make educated guesses about the personalities of the occupants (while the occupants were away). Photographs of the occupants or their families were covered so that some stereotypes could be reduced.
- The assistants were not trained professionals. They were just regular college undergraduates. The researchers wanted to know how well the Average Joe could judge a person by their personal space (not some trained personality researcher).
- Then, the occupants of those offices were assessed on their actual personalities through both self-report surveys AND through surveys of their close peers. This is a more accurate way to really get a snapshot of a person’s personality.
The occupants were rated on five traits: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and Openness to Experience.
First, the researchers wanted to know if the assistants would agree with each other on an office occupant’s personality. In other words, if you get five people to rate the personality of an office occupant, would all the raters agree with each other?
- Answer: there were significant levels of agreement on Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience. This means that the raters generally agreed with each other on 4/5 personality traits.
Second, the researchers wanted to know if the assistants’ judgments about the occupants were accurate.
Answer: the assistants’ were significantly accurate on Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience.
In other words, the raters accurately judged the office occupants on 3/5 personality traits.
Third, the researchers wanted to know if the assistants used the same visual cues to make judgments about a person’s personality traits.
- Answer: on the Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience traits (the accurate judgments), the assistants were basically using the same cues.
- If you examine these cues, you’ll agree they make sense. Conscientiousness is a personality trait associated with order, efficiency, and self-discipline. So an “organized, efficiently arranged, clean, and uncluttered” desk really communicated that trait. Openness to Experience is characterized by a curious, imaginative, and unconventional personality, and assistants used cues like level of decoration, color, and unusual interests to judge this trait. Extraverted people like talking with others, are gregarious, and are inviting, and clues for these traits were obvious in the office as well – an office that is stark, gloomy, and uninviting would yield a low score on Extraversion.
In a follow-up study, the researchers repeated the previous procedure, but this time examined bedrooms rather than offices.
- They got a sample of bedrooms for 83 occupants living in houses, apartments, college dorms, co-ops, and frat and sorority houses. They made sure bedrooms were either single-occupant or where a person’s individual space could be clearly identified.
- Then they got raters to judge the bedroom occupants’ personalities, and used surveys to determine the occupants’ real personalities.
- Once again, the raters significantly agreed with each other on the majority of traits: Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience.
- This time, raters were even more accurate on the occupants’ real personalities: the raters were significantly correct on all five personality traits (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and Openness to Experience).
- Interestingly, the raters didn’t always agree on which items were the best clues to judge a person’s personality (they only significantly agreed on 2/5 traits).
- But the bottom line is: You can accurately tell a lot about a person by the way their bedroom looks!
- Here’s the bottom line: people do judge you based on the areas you live in. And here’s the kicker – their judgments can be very accurate (even if they don’t know you at all).
- Therefore it’s worth asking yourself: what message am I sending with my office or bedroom decorations and organization? What do my “personal spaces” tell people about me?
- Am I communicating a message that I’m an uninviting slob who misses deadlines and shuns human interaction?
- Am I communicating a message that I’m open to new experience, inviting to other people, interested in a wide variety of things, and responsible with my work?
- Could these results be generalized to your car, your clothing, and your living rooms? It’s not outside the realm of possibility. Wherever we go, and whatever we call our “personal space” – we are leaving clues about ourselves.