You Are What You Buy

Examining the psychology of personal consumption.

Reviewed by Jay Dixit
Sunday, June 15, 2008; Page BW03


What Your Stuff Says About You

By Sam Gosling | Basic. 263 pp.$25


The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are

By Rob Walker | Random House. 291 pp. $25

In 1942, as the United States was entering World War II, the Office of Strategic Services -- the precursor to today's CIA -- was scrambling to find promising spies to go behind enemy lines. One of the aptitude exams it developed was the Belongings Test, in which candidates had to draw conclusions about a man based purely on items in his bedroom: clothes, a timetable, a ticket receipt.

Sam Gosling, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has made a career of studying how such clues illuminate personality. His premise is that our personalities seep out in everything we do and that expert snoopers can draw remarkably accurate pictures of us by examining the traces we leave behind.

Gosling's conclusions are supported by rigorous academic research, but his engaging book is aimed at a popular audience; he presents it as a field guide to the "special brand of voyeurism" he calls "snoopology." Few readers may actually rummage through their neighbors' garbage in search of what Gosling dryly calls "behavioral residue," but Snoop's conceit makes for an entertaining tour of how people project their inner selves outward into the world.

Some clues come from explicit, deliberate identity claims, like the Malcolm X poster on your wall or the crucifix over your bed. Others, like the songs you download or the coffee cup you throw away, are what psychologists call "seepage," messages that leak out beneath your notice.

The trick to decoding a person's space is knowing what to look for. Offices with plants, knick-knacks and symbols of friends, family and pets tend to belong to women; men display more sports items and symbols of their achievements. Rock fans are less friendly, more artistic and more anxious than fans of religious music. Extroverts offer comfortable chairs and bowls of candy as "bait" to lure people into their offices, while difficult people wind up on the remote fringes of the workplace.

This may seem like just common sense, but it's not. We think people with messy, disorganized bedrooms will be unpleasant, but we're wrong. We incorrectly assume people whose rooms are highly decorated and cluttered are more extroverted. We make similar errors in judging people directly: We expect timid, grumpy-looking people with weak voices and halting speech to be anxious and easily upset, and we expect self-assured, smiling, stylish people to be open, imaginative and curious. But neither expectation is accurate.

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