The Psychology of Home

BOOK REVIEW:  SNOOP, What Your Stuff Says About You 

The decorating clues that reveal our most personal selves.

“Essentially, what your home does is distill a very long history of behaviors and choices,” explains Sam Gosling, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas in his entertaining book Snoop: What Your Stuff Tells About You. 

 Gosling outlines five major areas of the psyche which are served--and revealed--by the way we create our homes. In Gosling’s view, our private spaces are a material extension and expression of who we are, sometimes leaving clues about us in ways we don’t intend.  

According to Gosling, the interior we live in helps us to: 

  1. Claim an identity 
  2. Choose our thoughts and feelings 
  3. Reveal traces of behavior 
  4. Display an identity 
  5. Reflect our life’s journey
  1. Claiming your identity

This facet of home applies most to its public spaces, those that other people see, such as the living room or dining room. In such rooms we display primarily the things we want guests to see, which might include rather formal, quality furniture, lovingly cared for and polished. A dining table might be beautifully and originally set with deliberately mismatched vintage plates, for example,  

    1. Choosing our thoughts and feelings

Here our focus is likely to be on the “oasis” aspect of our home, the home as enclave in which we may be at ease with our most private selves. Colors and textures that uniquely please us; an emphasis on comfort and relaxation are what we seek for our oasis. This realm of home is more likely to be a bedroom or private study than a living room frequented by guests. In it we might display family photographs and/or cherished mementoes we don’t necessarily want casual visitors to see: our childhood teddy bear, for example. 

 Interestingly, Gosling posits that “Much of the stuff we gather about us and the environments we create are there not to send messages about our identities but specifically to manage our emotions and thoughts.” (emphasis added). In other words, contrary to popular belief, home is less an opportunity for self-advertisement and display--of one’s wealth, for example--than a place we use to bolster our most private psyches. 

The colors we choose, the objects we love because of familial associations, are part of our effort, conscious or subconscious, both to retreat a bit from the world and to prepare ourselves to face it each day.  

    1. Traces of behavior

 Gosling gives several examples of how we subconsciously shape our space, our habits of arrangement--or lack thereof--that reveal personality traits, what Gosling calls “behavioral residue”. Perhaps we have arranged our books or CDs  in alphabetical order--a sign to some observers (Sigmund Freud comes to mind!) of an obsessive-compulsive personality (known today as OCD). Freud himself was a meticulous collector of antiquities, including figurines from ancient Greece and Egypt, which he displayed in serried ranks in his famous consulting room, now part of the Freud Museum in London. 

    1. Displaying an identity

“As we become older and develop our identity we’re stepping out of the family home on our own,” says Professor Gosling. “We begin to have the opportunity to express the things that place us apart from our family. Perhaps discovering parts of ourselves that we hadn’t noticed and which distinguish us from others around us.” 

This is where serious interior decoration comes in, whether we hire a professional to reimagine our home, or whether it is a DIY project. At this stage, we become designers, orchestrators of the home as a sort of second skin which we want to display to the world. Just as we want the clothes we wear to reflect our individuality while at the same time satisfying social demands for stylishness and status, so, as we mature, we want our home to make a statement about who we are--and, one might add--who we aspire to be. Home becomes a terrain upon which we imprint our best selves, what Abraham Lincoln, in quite a different context, called “our better angels.” 

Traces of a journey: home as history 

Home also embodies a visual and tactile time capsule of where we have been, our voyages out from the safety and security of home. The psyche comprises two opposing drives: the quest for security and the desire to plunge into experiences which often take us far away from home base. Mementoes of such travels are the spice we add to our surroundings:  photographs, objects collected, gifts received, often from strangers we have encountered in distant lands. 


We might have collected seashells in Mauritania, or rugs in Morocco; a modernist table heavy and expensive to ship--but worth it--from the Paris flea market, along with a stunning pair of 1970s Courreges boots. Antique bentwood chairs found in the streets of Barcelona; a collection of Wedgwood pottery from Camden Lock market in London. 

 This list is the tip of an infinite iceberg; personally, I think Sam Gosling’s book only scratches the surface of the material evidence individuals, and, indeed, whole civilizations, leave lying about for others--whether friends, social scientists like Gosling, or archaeologists centuries later--to discover and interpret. 

Although I agree with Gosling that our possessions and rooms reveal volumes about us, exactly what they reveal seems to me be shaped almost totally by who is interpreting their meaning. A social scientist will come up with completely different suppositions about the dweller’s personality than will an anthropologist, a private detective, an art historian, a novelist, or, for that matter, a professional interior decorator.  

I believe that SNOOP: What Your Stuff Says About You, while intriguing and amusing, is only partially insightful: it is merely an introduction to a subject as vast and ancient as humanity itself. Novelists have always used description of a character’s surroundings to provide clues to his or her identity, and perhaps, although spinners of fictions, they are the sharpest observers and interpreters of what “stuff” means. I mistrust the forensics of social scientists and other professionals because they lack the expertise--so often derided as “shallow”--of designers and decorators whose stock in trade is the keen interpretation of clients’ dwelling patterns, possessions and psychology.  Gosling has opened a door onto a subject--the meaning of rooms--which requires detective work from a much larger variety of disciplines--from the aesthetic to the scientific--than a single social scientist’s training can afford.  

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