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How to Snoop Ethically and with Science

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Admit it.

At one time or another you snooped. Maybe you peeked at your significant other’s phone. Opened a friend’s medicine cabinet. Or perhaps you even took a sneaky look into someone’s desk drawer.

Don’t worry, I won’t tell.

In fact, I’m going to do you one better.

I want to show you how to snoop better.

You read that right. People’s stuff says A LOT about them.

  • There is a science to snooping.
  • A psychology to peeping.
  • A method to spying.

Are you a human? If so, you can’t escape the irresistible urge to see what people don’t want us to see. We LOVE looking behind the secret curtain or in the box we’re told not to open. And there’s a reason:

“People’s possessions can tell us more about their personalities than face-to-face meetings.”

Dr. Sam Gosling

Oh ya, I’m also going to show you what people think when they snoop in your stuff. Yes, people judge you when they open your trunk, look in your wallet or open your hall closet. The question is: What do they find?

We read Dr. Sam Gosling’s incredible book, Snoop for our Science of People book club. Today I want to share the juicy nuggets from his research.

Warning: We’re talking about ethical snooping–privacy is paramount. Snoop with permission. Snoop with transparency. Make it an open discussion, not a secret mission. Here’s how:

  • Welcome Snooping: The art on our walls, the trinkets on our desk and the books on our coffee table are meant to be looked at. As you’ll see below, these provide some of the most interesting clues and don’t cross any privacy boundaries.
  • Helpful Snooping: I find the art and science of snooping pretty frickin’ fascinating. Immediately upon reading this book, I was desperate to look in all of my friends’ private spaces. So I asked if I could practice on them. Maybe my friends expect this from me, but everyone gleefully accepted (talk about the best conversation ever afterwards!) Of course, I let them snoop on me too.
  • Game Snooping: Now that I am a superior snooper after reading Gosling’s book, I challenge everyone I know to a snooping game. It’s my new favorite party trick. I will often point to something on the wall or on display in a living room and say, “Supposedly people who hang inspirational quotes are neurotic. Are you?” After a lively discussion, they typically invite me to analyze their various secret spaces. It makes for a delightful evening (I won’t be offended if you never invite me to your house.)

Whew, now that we got those warnings out of the way, are you ready? Let’s snoop.

Snooping 101:

Here are some tips on the art and science of snooping.

#1: Stuff Surprises Us

Snooping is not intuitive. Dr. Gosling conducted what he calls “The Bedroom Study.” He asked students to judge people’s personalities, political leanings and traits based on their bedrooms. Yup, people really did volunteer to have strangers walk through their rooms, look under their beds and snoop through their stuff. The first thing Gosling learned was that people aren’t as good as they think:

There were clues that snoopers shouldn’t have used but did, and clues that they should have used but didn’t.

The right clues were ignored and the wrong clues were highlighted. For example:

  • We think we are good at judging nervousness and neuroticism by someone’s bedroom, but we are not. However, we are extremely good at judging attractiveness (see how we do this below).
  • Judges used the presence of art and books on art to infer that occupants were Democrats. However, these have no relation to political affiliation (see what does infer political affiliation below).
  • People’s music collections say nothing about their dependability, but A LOT about their values and interests (see more below).

#2: How We Portray and Betray Our Personalities

We leave behavioral footprints in every space we occupy. Look in someone’s car and see what kind of take-out food they get, peer into someone’s trash can and see what their receipts show, look in a woman’s purse and be scared forever. Just kidding! But for some reason, I have found men have a fear of going through a friend or girlfriend’s purse. All of these places contain personality artifacts. These are symbols or evidence of our desires, traits and quirks. One of the big questions when it comes to snooping is whether or not artifacts are showcasing a portrayal–a purposeful placement of how we want someone to see us or a betrayal–revealing a secret side of ourselves that was not intentional. In other words:

  • Is this who someone really is?
  • Or, is this how someone wants to be seen?

It’s not an easy answer and something the best snoopers must keep in mind as they look at personality artifacts. As you begin to hone your snooping skills, don’t discredit the power of knowing how someone truly is and how they want you to see them–both are interesting facets of their personality.

#3: Personality Artifacts

The evidence we leave behind in our spaces can be split into 3 main categories. The snooper must be able to identify these:

  • Identity Claims are objects in our space that we use to showcase our identity, values and personality traits. Identity claims can be real expressions of ourselves or merely what we want people to think of us. They are the decorative objects such as trinkets, awards, posters, photos, and chachkies. We even do this with tattoos, email signatures, watches and wallets.
  • Feeling Regulators are things that help us manage our own emotions and thoughts. Family photos can help keep someone grounded at work. A tattoo on the inner forearm can be a reminder to someone when they look down while driving. A quote on a post-it note can help remind us to be grateful. In this way, our stuff helps remind us of an idea or value.
  • Behavioral Residue is the stuff left behind by our actions. An energy bar wrapper? A bobby pin from the night before? A half-read magazine? These are the physical traces left behind from our activities.

Right now, take a look around your office or bedroom. Try to identify each object as an identity claim, feeling regulator or behavioral residue.

#4: The Big 5

When we are getting to know someone, typically we are trying to decipher where they fall on the 5 big personality scale. They say something or do something and we guess, “How high or low are they in openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism?” Find out where you fall on each of these with our personality quiz. Gosling explains how our Big Five traits are connected to our belongings and how good we are at judging these.

We typically don’t get it right.

When it comes to snooping, over and over again we judge people based on the wrong clues. In most of the chapters, Gosling has tables with each of the 5 personality traits, what people think they mean and then what they actually mean. Here are the markers of how body language and clothing give away someone’s personality:

  • Conscientiousness: We think a controlled posture means someone is conscientious, but actually formality of dress indicates high conscientiousness.
  • Extroversion: We think people who have fast movements and hand gestures are highly extroverted, but actually a friendly expression and extensive smiling matters more.
  • Openness: We think we can judge people’s openness by how fashionably they are dressed when in fact there is no reliable factor for openness when it comes to appearance.
  • Agreeableness: We think someone is high in agreeableness when they smile a lot, but in fact their walking is more telling. High agreeable people have a more relaxed walk and swing their arms more. Special note: Agreeable people tend to have ‘soft facial lineaments’ aka a baby face.
  • Neuroticism: We think people with a grumpy expression and stiff walking style are neurotic, but actually the only indicator of neuroticism with appearance is wearing darker colors.

how to snoop#5: Photographic Evidence

Beginner snoopers should start with photographs. Why? Photographs fall into all three categories:

  • Identity Claims: What photos has the person chose to showcase to you? Photos are wonderful evidence of our values. Does someone have tons of pictures of them hiking, biking and traveling? You can bet that they are high open and love trying new things. Does someone have pictures of them with big groups of friends? You can bet that they are high extroverts.
  • Feeling Regulators: Photos can also be used to regulate our own feelings and moods. Take a look at how the photographs are displayed. On someone’s desk, which photographs are meant for you (angled out) and which are meant for the owner (angled in)? I always like to see which pictures are closest to someone’s computer screen–this is the picture someone looks at the most and uses to self-regulate or as a reminder. Bonus if you can see what photo they use as their desktop or phone background.
  • Behavioral Residue: Photos are the best evidence of activity — they are photographs of an activity! Want to know how someone spends their time? Take a look at the photos they have on display.

By the way, the photo above is my phone home screen. If you were to see it (as many people do), you would know that I am an animal lover and this is a feeling regulator picture for me. It reminds me of one of my personal mantra,s which is to ‘think more like a dog’. Now, before you get all upset at me (cats are great too!), dogs have the curiosity, energy and all around love that I so admire.

(Shoutout to Rufio and Ginger for letting me post their picture on my blog.) This home screen photo reminds me not to take stuff so seriously and to have a little more fun with whatever I am doing.

Anyways, people often see this picture and ask me about it. Then we get into a great discussion about animals and mentalities and mission statements. This brings me to my next point, which is to always pair snooping with conversation…

#6: The Sharing Game

Conversational snooping and physical snooping isn’t all that different. In fact, just like in conversation, Gosling found that it’s better to discover things slowly then a full-on reveal. One of my favorite parts of his research had to do with conversational sleuthing–what you find out about someone using specific questions. Researcher Arthur Aron developed 36 questions to help you move past small talk and get to real intimate conversation. They are designed to discuss values and goals and to break down barriers to get past superficial relationships. Here are the top 5:

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?

3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?

4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?

See all 36 in our post: 36 Questions to Ask Your Partner. Why are these conversational shares important? The snooping we do verbally is similar to the snooping we do nonverbally. When developing a relationship with someone, we are trying to suss out their values, goals, perspectives and history. When you look in someone’s fridge, you want to know if they value health. When you check out their book shelf, you want to know what they enjoy. When you get a glimpse of their hall closet, you want to know if they value organization. This is the exact same thing we do in conversation when we ask, “What are you up to this weekend?” or “Read any good books lately?” or “There is stuff everywhere–did you just move in or something?” Don’t forget that your snooping should be verifying or disproving your conversational discoveries. And all of your observations can easily be turned into questions.

  • Next time you are in someone’s office, cubicle or house, have them walk you through each of their knickknacks and fridge photos. You learn so much! And people love to share–that’s why they have them on display in the first place.

#7: Music to My Ears…and Eyes

Music is a big deal. In fact, exploring someone’s musical collection is also one of the best places to snoop. Somehow we know that musical tastes say a lot about a person. We can snoop into musical tastes with questions–“What music do you like?” and by snooping–checking out preset radio stations, taking a gander through someone’s music library when trying to find a good song for the party or looking through their record collection.

Note to my Mother: If you are my Mom and you are reading this: Yes, you can look at someone’s CD collection. And someone will judge you by yours, so please for the love of all things holy, ditch your Barry Manilow compilations! (Love you even though you still buy CDs from Amazon!)

When Gosling looked at the top ten most popular dating websites, he found that 90% of them asked users about their musical preferences.

In one study, Gosling collected data on the music preferences of several thousand undergraduates at The University of Texas and analyzed the results. They were able to group musical preferences into 4 categories:

  1. Reflective and complex: classical, jazz, blues and folk
  2. Intense and rebellious: punk, punk rock, hardcore rap
  3. Upbeat and conventional: country, religious, soundtracks and pop
  4. Energetic and rhythmic: Hip hop, dance, techno

They found 2 connections to personality:

  • People who listen to “reflective and complex” music score highly on openness, verbal ability, self-perceived intelligence and political liberalism.
  • People who listen to “upbeat and conventional” music score highly on extroversion, self-perceived physical attractiveness, athleticism and political conservatism.

Does this fit your musical tastes?

#8: The Room Guide

Ok, so you enter someone’s bedroom, cubicle or office for the first time and you make a snap judgement. Make sure it is accurate! As mentioned over and over again in Gosling’s research, what we think matters doesn’t always and we miss the most important clues. For example, we can use some clues to judge political leanings:

  • Conservatives: Include more organizational items including calendars and stamps and sports paraphernalia, flags of various types and alcohol containers. Since conservatives are typically higher in conscientiousness and lower in openness, their spaces were more clean, organized and well-lit.
  • Liberals: Include a greater variety of books and music, more art supplies, stationary, movie tickets, international maps and cultural memorabilia.

Here are the room clues, broken down by personality type:

  • Conscientiousness: We think colorful walls means someone is conscientious, but actually organization, good lighting and organized books indicates high conscientiousness.
  • Extroversion: We think we can judge extroversion by how cluttered a room is, but we cannot judge extroversion at all from a room’s appearance. However, in offices and cubicles, decorations did indicate high extroversion because they wanted to make their space inviting. Their trinkets, candies and games were meant to lure people in.
  • Openness: We think we can judge people’s openness by how decorative the room is when in fact, variety of books is the best factor.
  • Agreeableness:We think we can judge agreeableness by how cheerfully a room is decorated, but we cannot judge agreeableness from a room’s appearance.
  • Neuroticism: We think gloomy, stale rooms are owned by high neurotics, but actually the only indicator of neuroticism is motivational posters and quotes. Anxious people high in neuroticism are using inspirational messages of posters to regulate their tendency to worry. The posters are a visual form of self-medication.

Special Note: Take a note of the clues people think are important. If you look around your office or room, check out the clues people will use. Whether it’s accurate or not, you need to know what messages you are sending.

If it interests you, here is a picture of my desk. What do you see?

how to snoop

#9: Space and Place

Snooping isn’t just about small clues, it’s also about context. The type of building someone lives in, the city someone moves to and the energy of a space can tell you a lot about a person. In his amazing book, Who’s Your City, Richard Florida talks about the personality of place. On a personal note, this book changed my life. 7 years ago, my husband and I sold all of our stuff and became urban nomads. We wandered the world for 2 years (running our online businesses from our laptops) looking for a new home. We used Richard Florida’s book to help us decide which place had the best personality fit for us. For example:

personality maps

When you are snooping, think about the context of this person’s life and if they have choice over the city they live in and the building they call home. An FBI agent that Gosling interviewed for the book says sometimes he just likes to sit in someone’s room and see how it feels to be in their space. I find that this is one of the most illuminating and personal experiences you can have.

  • I sat in one of my friend’s desk chairs at his office (with his permission) for a few minutes. I literally felt like I was reading his diary. I actually got uncomfortable it felt so personal! I think it is because for a few minutes I stepped into his life and his space.

Another interesting fact is that people who decorate their offices typically have higher levels of job satisfaction, psychological well being and physical health.

#10: Garbage is Gold

Gosling tackles the taboo topic of snooping through garbage. He offers compelling evidence of how much garbage can tell us about a person. Old shopping lists can tell you about someone’s eating and health habits. Receipts can tell you about their splurges. Torn up packaging can tell you about a new hobby. Garbage is so telling that researcher William Rathje has written: Rubbish! The Archeology of Garbage. However, I am not suggesting you go through people’s garbage! Rather, I want to make a point that what might seem on the surface as unimportant might actually be the most important clue of all.

  • Perfect, But Not Perfect: One thing I have already noticed while beginning my amateur snooping career is that certain people will ‘perfect’ their space for visitors-everything on the surface seems perfectly groomed, manicured and put in its place. But as soon as you peek behind a curtain, you see swept away toys, bottle caps and mountains of fuzz. Or the guest bedroom that you accidentally walk into thinking it is a bathroom, is full to the brim with stuff. This tells you something really important about this person: for them, appearance is paramount.
  • The Absence of Garbage: I have also noticed that the absence of garbage is a striking behavioral residue. We are human; we produce trash. When you walk into someone’s office or bedroom and there is a pristine trashcan and not a speck of behavioral residue, that tells you something too.

The Art and Science of Snooping

Now that you have all of the juicy info on snooping, how do you put it all together? Here is your quick guide:

Step One: Gather Info

When you meet someone, go into their office or walk into their house, you are in information gathering mode. Everything is a clue. Here are some of my favorite overlooked areas to snoop (with permission):

  • Email signatures
  • Cup Holder in Car
  • Usernames
  • Bedside table
  • Passenger side of the car
  • Radio presets
  • Their Top 25 Most Played List
  • Bumper Stickers
  • Purses
  • Wallets
  • Tattoos
  • The Trunk
  • Their Podcast List
  • Bookshelf
  • Facebook posts
  • Favorite Cocktail Order
  • Desktop Photo
  • Phone Homescreen

Step Two: Cluster

Once you have gathered clues, you want to begin to cluster them together. One clue never stands alone. In the book, one group of students analyzing a male’s dorm room were misled by a pair of high-heeled shoes left behind by an overnight guest. In another story, a company gave all of its employees Filofaxes–which indicated high conscientiousness. But since these were not by choice, it is not a valid clue. Look for patterns of clues before making any judgements.

Step Three: Verify

It is incredibly important to verify your ideas. I love to ask people directly about my observations or start a conversation about an idea that I have. Snooping is actually a more accurate way to look at people. You can use the art and science to make your first impressions more accurate.

Final Note: Use your snooping powers for good and not evil. Snoop with permission. Snoop with curiosity. Snoop with transparency and let people snoop on you! You never know, you might discover something surprising.

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