the observer Sat 30 May 2009
Sam Gosling is a psychology professor in Texas, whose work, made friendly to the general reader in this book, focuses on what people's possessions and homes tell you about them. If you think this sounds a bit like daytime TV's Through the Keyhole, you'd not be wrong. In fact, Gosling admits that the idea to write a book for wide consumption came from appearing on an American pilot television show, in which he was asked to deduce what people were like from looking through a box of their stuff. For a book, it's a great idea: what does the desk opposite tell you about your colleague? If you buy that picture, will visitors to your house think you a bit weird? Why did your girlfriend choose such a silly email address?
It's only unfortunate that so many of the answers provided by the "science of snooping" are blindingly obvious: people's email addresses "give us a clue about how they see themselves"; firm handshakes suggest forceful personalities; women generally put up more stuff around their desks than men; a statue of the Virgin Mary could belong to a "devout Catholic" or "kitsch collector".
Snoop also manages, in places, to be unconvincing. Take, for example, Table 8.2, labelled "Office Space Field Guide". This tells us that people might wrongly assume an agreeable person would have an "inviting desk", when in fact he'd simply sit in a "high traffic location"; and that a neurotic person would have an "uninviting desk", whereas she'd actually have a "decorated" workstation. Really?
Gosling acknowledges, however, that much of his work deals in stereotypes and explains, from a scientific point of view, that the fact they are stereotypes does not make them worthless. He also addresses sensitive issues around racial stereotyping, without getting bogged down in them. And there's something pleasingly Machiavellian about his reasoning that makes even the obvious fun: "Part of wanting to look good is concealing your efforts at trying to look good."
By the end, I'd learnt that reading this book in public will, at least, make you look interesting.