Personality & Place: From a purely functional towards a psychological perspective of place

September 11, 2015

Rowing on the Landeswehrkanal in Berlin on a warm July summer evening, Sam Gosling the University of Texas psychology professor was interviewed by Peter van der Bel curator and founder of The Centre for Product Personality Research. Dr Gosling who wrote “Snoop, what your stuff says about you” is considered a leading expert in the field of Personality and Space. The conversation whilst evading large vessels and fighting off an occasional mosquito, covered a variety of subjects such as baffling omissions in top architect curricula, robots and our personality, the diminishing need for psychological testing, the growing need for a psychological perspective when dealing with space and the manifestation of personality in both virtual and real world spaces.

Time-sequenced questions and transcript of the interview below.


  • 00M00 Dr Gosling you are a leading expert in the field of personality and place, can you give an introduction of yourself?
  • 00M43 Since the publication of your book “Snoop” in 2008, what new research domains have you focussed on?
  • 01M46 What categories of indicators are there to assess people’s personality in their spaces with?
  • 04M25 What are differences in expressing and assessing personality in physical and in virtual spaces?
  • 06M25 Is it fair to say that all personality information can nowadays be inferred from the social data?
  • 07M03 In which domains can personality play out?
  • 10M23 What role can personality play with the new generation of robots?
  • 11M46 What research findings in personality and space do you expect to be applied soon?
  • 15M24 How does Michal Kosinski’s research on Facebook Likes and personality relate to yours?



00M00 Dr Gosling you are a leading expert in the field of personality and place, can you give an introduction of yourself?

My name is Sam Gosling, I am a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and I am interested in the connection between people and the spaces in which they live and work. I am interested in particular in personality and how that connects to people and places, so for example how do people leave traces of their personality in the spaces they occupy, and how do spaces affect people.

00M43 Since the publication of your book “Snoop” in 2008, what new research domains have you focussed on?

My early work looked at residential spaces and places where people work, but I am now particularly interested in how people don’t just manipulate places, but they move around to try to affect places, so for example, if they want to feel a certain way, they decide to go to, say, a certain kind of café, or they decide to go to a certain room of the house to try to affect their emotions.

If people want to feel a certain way, they decide to go to a certain kind of café, or they decide to go to a certain room of the house to try to affect their emotions.

I think that this is a tremendously important area of research, because I think that this is a very pervasive way in which people affect their thoughts and feeling, yet if you look at the emotion literature, virtually, nobody has studied this. Lots of people are studying how people affect their own emotions and what people do to try to change them, but if you look at the literature, there is virtually no mention of space as a way to do that. Yet I think it is one of the most pervasive ways in which people do affect their emotions.

01M46 What categories of indicators are there for people to express their personality in their spaces with?

We talk about three broad ways in which people express themselves. The first is this deliberate statement that people make about themselves. The things they want to tell others, like all these identity claims. Now perhaps, one difference between what I am talking about and what Geoffrey Miller is talking about, is that people may want to make an identity claim that is counter to being a high prestige claim. People may want to make a counter prestigious claim, for example, here we are right now rowing down the canal in Berlin: people on the side of this canal, I don’t think they would want to buy a Mercedes or a Porsche if they could, that is not what they see as the valuable identity they want to convey.

So, I think identity claims are very important and sure there are some links with Miller’s categories, but also some important differences. I think one thing to remember here is that identity claims, though they are deliberate, many people think that just because they are deliberate claims, that means people are  being manipulative or disingenuous, but I think this is not the case. There is lots of research in psychology, I am thinking for example Bill Swann’s work on self verification, which shows that most of the time, people want to be known. They want others to see them as they see themselves. They are not just trying to create a good impression. The second category that we talk about in our research is thought and feeling regulators. That is many of the things we put in our space. The things we put there deliberately, so they are like identity claims in that sense, but they are not there for the benefit of others, but to make us think about certain things or feel a certain way.

Great examples are maybe the mementos you have in front of your desk. They are not there for others to see, they are there to remind you of maybe a happy time, a person or a place, or something like that. And then the third category is what I call a behavioral residue. This is the inadvertent traces of our behaviours. When we are in our spaces, we engage in many behaviours, and a subset of those behaviours leave a trace in the environment. This is more like a social thing that perhaps Sherlock Holmes will be looking for. You can look for clues to find out the traces of everyday behaviour, and these clues build up over time, which is why they serve us quite reliable estimates of people’s behaviour, which of course is the link to personality.

04M25 What are the differences in expressing and assessing personality in physical and virtual spaces?

There has been a lot of research recently looking at virtual spaces. Virtual spaces could be things like a social media profile, or even things like a second life world or even one’s character in online games like World of Warcraft. I think there are some similarities between those and some important differences, too. The similarities are that it is really people engaging in authentic social interactions. So, you see traces of those interactions. In some ways it offers great advantages.

Many social interactions in the offline world don’t leave a trace. If you and I have a conversation with each other, we have that conversation ephemeral, and it just vanishes. And if people have a conversation on let’s say, a social media platform, such as Facebook, e-mail or Twitter or something like that, it leaves a trace. It leaves a trace that we can analyse pretty well. So in some ways, social media and virtual worlds offer many more clues to behaviour. Another way they offer many more clues is that they are not limited. So, in something like World of Warcraft, for example, you could be what you want. You could be who you want to be, you can fly, you can do all kinds of things: you are not limited by the constraints of the physical world or your constraints.

Of course, that also allows people to kind of diverge more from who they are. In fact, World of Warcraft is the one area where we found that people, if they make an impression on somebody based on their World of Warcraft avatar, that’s the one place, we found, that people do not judge others accurately on the basis of those avatars. They agree on what these people are like, but they are not right.

06M25 Is it fair to say that all personality information can nowadays be inferred from social data?

The reason that we are interested in personality is because — presumably — it gives some insight into how people will behave. So, if we can use many of these forms of technology to find out directly how people behave, where they go, what they like to do, their behavioural habits, and so on, that does, in some sense, remove the need for personality assessment.

7M03 In which domains can personality play out?

Even after you control for standard socio-economic factors like class, race and education, we find that people in a personality of state are correlated with other indicators in that state.

Personality has a long history of looking at things like social outcomes, health outcomes and entrepreneurial outcomes. So, for example, some of our work in geographic analysis of personality shows these connections, too. So, what we have done in this study, and this is in collaboration with Jason Rentfrow at Cambridge University, he and I have been looking at the average personalities of different regions. What we find is that even after you control for standard socio-economic factors like class, race, education, etc., we find that people in a personality of state, I mean the average level of say openness or agreeableness, the big five traits and so on, the average level of people in that state is correlated with other indicators in that state.

So, for example, we find that things like neuroticism are strongly related to health outcomes like heart disease and cancer-related death. We find that things like openness are strongly related to some outcomes you’d expect to be related to those things, so for example, people high on state openness tend have more people going more to museums, they tend to have more patents taken out. Some of the other work we have done with Martin Obschonka and his colleagues: we have been looking at the personality profile associated with entrepreneurship. So, there is a long history looking at the personality profile of entrepreneurs. And what we have done in that research, we have linked the personality of people in certain states. We have replicated this across the US, Germany and the UK, and these are completely separate samples, we found that in states, counties with people with entrepreneur profiles, you see various indicators of high entrepreneurial activity.

So this is really quite interesting, just as the past work in psychology has informed microeconomic analysis, much the work that for example Daniel Kahneman has been doing. It shows that you can also take this macropsychological perspective, looking at the psychology of broad regions, to understand macroeconomic behaviours at a large scale. Now, of course you have to always be careful of making the ecological fallacy. It is possible that you could find a group-level effect and it not being true to the individual level, but these analyses are totally new in shedding light on a possibly previously unstudied area of factors that might influence large-scale economic behaviour.

10M23 What role can personality play with the new generation of robots?

I think that there are a number of ways in which personality is going to influence our humans’ interactions with robots and other mechanical devices. And that is: the nature of our interaction is very much affect by the personality of those other individuals, whether that individual is another human, a robot, or perhaps, as some of my other research shows, other types of animals. People are very much interested in the personality of dogs when they select a dog, because that affects the nature of their interactions. Some dogs are better lapdogs, some dogs are better at going on exercising, and so on.

So, just as we may choose a dog, a romantic partner or a co-worker on the basis of personality, it is very likely we will also make those kinds of deliberations when choosing a robot. Now, of course, what is interesting here is that robots are not subject to the same biological constraints that humans or dogs are. And we may be able to find, we may be able to design a robot that matches our personality. Now it seems quite likely that we will be able to do that

11M46 What research findings in personality and space to you expect to be applied soon?

What was particularly interesting was when we were doing our research in office spaces, going around and looking how people had organised their spaces. So, I am thinking here at lot of their cubicles: there is no real space in cubicles for people to express themselves. Yet people are balancing various trinkets and signs and symbols on the top of their computers and on the edges of their cubicles and various other places. And what this shows is the need the people have to express who they are, to express their identity. I think that once designers of offices become familiar with this need, they need to take this into account.

I think that this has implications on some of the trends in office designing. So, there is a lot of talk now about hot desks, when people come in and just take whatever desk is available and do their work their. Sure, that may be quite efficient in getting people to do work and not take up much space, but in a sense, it neglects a very important psychological function of these spaces, which is about telling people who they are and conveying that to them. The other research that is really interesting to me is this research I am doing with architect Chris Travis. In that work we are really using psychology to try to understand the source of spaces that make people feel happy, feel safe, feel protected. People will often tell you about the sort of space they need, and they will often have pretty firm ideas about the spaces that make them happy.

But I think, in general, they are pretty clueless about those things. So, I think, by trying to expand architects’ awareness of the importance between connections and space, we can really integrate these ideas into building spaces. One of the things that has always been puzzling me is that, if you look at the syllabi of top architect programmes, they allow some students to take psychology, but they don’t require it, and that seems to me be totally baffling. Why would people building spaces for humans not think it is important to learn something important about  humans, about their psychology. We know that’s important. Another connection is for example the work you’re doing, looking at, trying to match people with the right spaces. I think that is fascinating, this idea of saying, if people use their personality to select their homes, then one way of finding out whether that home is suitable to me, is if other people who lived there before are similar to me.

If so, that is an initial sign that maybe this will be a good fit. So, I think, really though, that the key is just beginning to understand this when we think about spaces, and moving away from this purely functional perspective that does allow me to do things efficiently from a functional perspective, to look into the psychological perspective, too. That is, I think, enormously important but much neglected.

15M24 How does Michal Kosinski’s research on Facebook likes and personality relate to yours?

I think the work that Michal Kosinski is doing on Facebook likes, where he is linking the things people like to their personalities is really doing the same things as our work, but just in a different domain. He is finding out whether people like certain activities, whether they like certain sorts of musics, whether they like certain icons. So I think, the interesting thing about this is that the likes allow people to connect directly to the things, and with great detail and fidelity paint a portrait of the things they like. The one difference is maybe that people are unlikely to like things that they kind of secretly like or they don’t want to convey to others.

And that’s where going to people’s spaces is helpful. You can see things if you look at their private spaces that are not obvious on Facebook. It may be much more difficult to get access to people’s private spaces than their Facebook profiles. Examples of things that people may like in private but not in public may be, for example, they put the highbrow books out in their living room for people to see, but the trashy novels in their bedrooms, which are the books they really read. The equivalent would be, they would only perhaps like Goethe and Shakespeare but would not openly like Jilly Cooper or whoever that is.

Interview Peter van der Bel
founder & curator of The Centre for Applied Product Personality Research

Preparation and transcription Evi Toth-Szollos

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