What your stuff says about you

I went to an interesting event organised by finding infinity .
There would be two speakers that night, one of them was Sam Gosling, a Magnum PI-ish psychology professor from Austin, Texas and Timothy Hill, serious and strangely funny architect from his own firm Partners Hill. While Timothy’s talk was very interesting in his own right (check out his library building or the pretty cool Z house here ) I want to talk mostly about what Sam talked about.

He and his collaborators were interested in why we design animal enclosures through studying their behaviour but don’t do the same thing for human enclosures, a.k.a. houses. So they started studying how people personalise their space and how they live and tried to deduct if there are patterns there. They went to student dorms and tried to find out if the way people organise their things and what things they have is any indication as to who they are. You can already see where this is going. I found it fascinating that there were strong correlations between the big five personality dimensions and the way we organise space.

The big five:

Openness to experience

The strongest correlation was with openness to experience. You could easily tell how open to something new someone is by seeing their place. They found that people personalise a place (your desk at work for example) by three different methods:

  1. Identity claim – You have items that tell other people about you without you having to say anything. Stickers on your door for example
  2. Thought and feeling regulators – Items that influence how you feel. Music, nature pictures, cushions etc.
  3. Behavioural residue – indicators of actions we do or don’t do. Clutter is one good example of this.

So we know that people are different but our houses are only minimally customisable (especially not for renters in Australia) and rooms are in most cases only designed for function and not for how they make us feel. A bathroom for example has a toilet and a shower. But what other things do we appreciate about a bathroom? I like reading there, we get ready in the morning, groom, relax in the bath, improve our looks or the way we dress. It is a private space of calm and regeneration.


A way that was proposed to encourage these thoughts were ambiance dimensions. He suggested a few possible desired ambiances that one could go for when designing or just claiming a space:

(Bathroom, Garden)
(Kitchen, living room)
(Living room)
(Office, garden, kitchen)
(basement, wardrobe)

When we assign ambiances consciously to a space then we have a clearly formulated intent and can act on it. He was talking about one architect who asks his clients not about what they want (let’s face it nobody knows what they want) but instead asked them: “Tell me about a time of your life when you felt protected/loved ….” And then he tried to recreate these experiences.

A funny sidenote: most of us are trying to reproduce how we felt in our grandparents’ place. As a haven outside of our own house, the nanna’s house was where we got pampered and could eat as much as we want. Good times.

We all get told by our parents (or Jordan Peterson) to tidy up our room. But intentionally designing for desired feeling is new to me and I like to see where this is going.

You can watch Sam talk about this stuff here or buy his book here.