Pick Me! Pick Me!

Residents of a group house in Adams Morgan have an open house to pick a new roommate
Prospective roommates try to win over the housemates at their open house in Adams Morgan. (Sarah L. Voisin - The Washington Post)

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By Rebecca Adams
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 9, 2006

In a five-bedroom house in Adams Morgan, the race is on.

The prize is a sunny bedroom featuring scratched wood floors, a shared bathroom and, thanks to the whooping monkeys a half-mile away at the National Zoo, no need for an alarm clock.

The rent is $710, and the competition is strong.

On a Sunday afternoon, 16 people prowl through the house. Another seven sniff out the territory later.

"It's a popularity contest, and it's impossible," says one of the contestants, Chrissy Moore, a black-clad young woman with a silver hoop in her lip, dyed red-and-blond hair and mascaraed blue eyes. "People will do anything to live in the city. I know people who are splitting 300-square-foot studios."

Judgments about prospective roommates are "very much based on gut instinct," says John D. Krumboltz, a professor of education and psychology at Stanford University. "You're not going to review this person's resume. You can usually tell immediately if they show signs of warmth and friendliness, which most of us welcome, or if they exhibit hostility or aloofness that most people find off-putting."

Fair or not, physical appearance may play a larger role in forming first impressions than anything the candidate might say, according to experts. "It's not just the sheer level of a person's attractiveness, but more along the lines of, 'What's the stereotype of this type of person?' " says Mark R. Leary, chair of the department of psychology at Wake Forest University. "You pick up physical clues -- someone is wearing too much makeup, or it's a man with hair on his face. It's the same as the snap judgments we make about people if we pass them on the street."

The clothes someone wears, for instance, might remind you of another person or mirror your own preferences. "A person unconsciously evokes all prior experiences associated with pleasure or emotional consequences when making a decision," says Antoine Bechara, an associate professor of psychology, neuroscience and neurology at the University of Southern California.

To be sure, impressions reveal only so much. "You can tell how extroverted or introverted or nice versus mean someone is," Leary says. "It's harder to tell whether that person is going to steal my money."

The Jury Is In

The four occupants of the Adams Morgan house have been through this before. "It's really funny how people essentially try to bribe you," says Nathan Fenstermacher, a Capitol Hill aide who is the dean of the house. "They'll slip in, you know, 'I really love cooking for people,' or 'I always let my friends borrow my car.' Once someone moves in, that never happens."

Then again, some bribes work. Several years ago, one applicant showed up with a six-pack of beer to share. She got the room.


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