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If these walls could talk? They do

August 14, 2003|Benedict Carey | Times Staff Writer

When entering a house or apartment for the first time, most of us don't merely look around, we breathe the place in. The light, the smell, the sweep and color of the walls, the books on the bedside table, the brand of stereo speakers, the quality and placement of artwork, the sheet music on the stand (Debussy? Tesh?), the wine selection. Every detail seems to provide a clue to the personality of its keeper, as if part of a room-by-room Rorschach test.

Or so we believe, consciously or not. In fact, say psychologists who study living environments and personality, some clues are more reliable than others, and it pays to know which is which. "Sometimes people misjudge what these room cues mean," said Samuel D. Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, "but we find that often they judge room cues very accurately."

Few people miss the obvious: A clean, orderly house or room does tend to reflect the influence of a well-organized person, and a house stacked with books usually reflects the appetite of a curious mind.

Yet even these straightforward observations can mislead in unexpected ways. In one recent experiment, Gosling had a group of seven men and women examine 83 bedrooms and make judgments about the rooms' occupants, without ever meeting them.

The seven observers considered more than 40 qualities, including lighting, background noise, clutter, odor, color, musical taste, book collection and distinctiveness of artwork. Meanwhile, the researchers evaluated the occupants themselves to find out what they were really like.

One of the most common mistakes the observers made was a tendency to associate cleanliness with godliness -- or, at least, with trustworthiness and decency. Gosling found no relation between the two: A kind, morally grounded, loyal person is as likely to have her CD collection piled haphazardly on a shelf like a house of cards as to have it indexed alphabetically by artist. The raters got the tidiness clue wrong by reading more into it than was there.

At the same time, those who correctly identified intellectually curious, experimental types did so not by counting the number of books or CDs the person had -- but the variety. "A person might have only 10 books in their room, but if those books were on all sorts of different topics, they were rated, accurately, as being fairly broad-minded," Gosling said.

Musical taste belongs in a category all its own. At a certain age, many people launch close, if sometimes short-lived, friendships based solely on sight of a single CD or album cover: Oooh you've got that first Howlin' Wolf record. And these snap judgments may not be as hopelessly shallow as they seem, according to a study published in June.

In a study of analysis of listening habits among more than 3,000 young men and women, Peter Rentfrow, an associate of Gosling's at the University of Texas, reported that stereotypes of music taste tend to hold true. Jazz fans are likely be more cerebral and reflective than the average, based on psychological tests. Country and pop fans are outgoing, less apt to crave new experiences. And an eclectic collection, ranging from Mozart to Miles to Mayall to Eminem, also was evidence of open mindedness and intellectual adventurousness, said Rentfrow.

That doesn't mean that rooms easily give away perhaps the most precious information: Could this person be a good friend or a good mate? Is this the sort of family that would really mesh with ours? Is this person or family decent, thoughtful, funny -- a keeper?

To gather intelligence on these questions, we all have our own methods, our own instincts, a blend of hard experience, biases and taste. "The first thing I notice is light," said Chris Hall, an interior designer based in Berkeley. "If there's an overhead source washing everything with glare, it creates a very different impression than when you have isolated warm pools of lamp light in a room ... the overhead light seems less friendly, more businesslike. Like a Denny's restaurant, it's not exactly inviting you to linger."

Maria Montero, a 39-year-old mother of two in Los Angeles, said that when walking into living rooms in particular she immediately looks for evidence of some nocturnal activity. "Candles, lamps, tables for playing cards, some evidence that people are using the rooms socially at night," she said. "If there's an easy chair, it should have a lamp and table near it with books." Living rooms without social niches -- dominated instead by, say, an oversized TV -- suggest to Montero a less intimately social evening life, or at least one very different from her own.

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