Books: The Science of Junk

Sam Gosling is on his hands and knees under a desk, examining the detritus covering the rug. "Look at all these cables," he says, "and what are these--bottle caps? Lots of pens, a letter opener… very interesting." He combs over the rest of the room, which is crammed with photos, stacks upon stacks of CDs, press badges from music conventions, political posters, and a kitschy blanket that says "Winners Make It Happen." He has the intensity--and enthusiasm--of an actor on "CSI," exclaiming 'aha!" when he comes across an 8-track of Olivia Newton-John. But this is no crime scene he's investigating (other than perhaps a crime against music). It's the office of a NEWSWEEK reporter, and Gosling is searching for clues to his personality.

A psychology professor who spends his days poking around in other people's bedrooms, offices, and medicine cabinets, Gosling believes that our artifacts--our books, music, photos, posters, and, yes, even our bottle caps--serve as nonverbal cues to the rest of the world as to who we are and what we value. As he writes in his book "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You," "people's possessions can tell us even more about their personalities than face-to-face meetings, or, sometimes, what their best friends say about them." The reporter with the messy floor, for example, struck Gosling as most likely a male in his early 30s. (Correct.) He also intuited the reporter is an extravert, emotionally stable, open, creative, liberal, disorganized, has a quirky sense of humor, and is "a good person to get a party going." (All pretty accurate, says the reporter.) Another, more austere office, lacking in personal photos, indicated its occupant could be introverted, slightly neurotic, a bit of a hoarder, and "possibly a little lonely." Pretty basic stuff, right? But effective snooping is not as simple as equating pictures with popularity, or assuming someone with a lot of CDs likes music. "It's dangerous to look for the things that stick out," Gosling says. "You want to look for themes. The meaning of one thing modifies the meaning of another." In the case of the extraverted reporter, that means a bottle of Hooters hot sauce on the bookshelf doesn't necessarily signify a regular Hooters patron: it's probably there for ironic effect. (The reporter says: no comment.)

In the book, Gosling promises to teach readers how to be effective snoopers, but quickly moves into his real area of interest: personality differences. The notion that people fall into archetypes that can be used to predict their behavior has been with us for centuries: around 300 BC, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus described 30 personality profiles in "The Characters." Four centuries later, the Greek physician Galen posited that our personalities are an expression of the mix of the four humors, with an excess of any one making us sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, or choleric. More recently, during World War II, Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Meyers, used Jung's typological theories to develop the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, which classifies people according to opposing traits such as extraversion vs. introversion, and judging vs. perceiving. Gosling relies on what he calls "The Big Five" personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, or, cutely, OCEAN, for short. How we organize our personal spaces reveals where we fall on the spectrum of each trait, he says. Messy people tend to score high for extraversion but low for conscientiousness, while people with generic, undecorated bedrooms or offices score low for openness, but high for conscientiousness.

Of course, there's another way to tell what someone's like: simply get to know her. Yet we seem drawn to typologies as a way of explaining others, and, perhaps even more appealingly, ourselves. Whether we identify as melancholic, or a classic Meyers-Briggs Introvert-Sensing-Thinking-Judging, or excuse our disheveled bedroom as a sign of our creativity, we take comfort in classifying our personalities, even as we insist on our individuality. This desire may have an evolutionary imperative, Gosling says: "Others afford both the greatest threat and the greatest opportunity in our environment, and we need to be able to quickly assess if they'll help or harm us. And we want to understand the impressions we are giving because what we are like has enormous implications about whether our genes go on." Is it ultimately helpful for the messy-desked reporter, or his coworkers, to know he's an extravert with poor organization skills? Maybe not. But at least now he knows to hide the hot sauce the next time a visitor comes around.

Books: The Science of Junk | Culture