Expert Q&A

Psychology prof. discusses mental connection to one’s space, stuff

For many people, the New Year brings about vows to get organized or clean out their space. What many may not realize is that the way in which you set up your space and arrange your stuff actually has an effect on you mentally.

Professor Sam Gosling of the Department of Psychology has done a great deal of research on this matter and even published a book, “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You." Gosling answered our questions about his area of expertise and how we can be successful at getting organized for the New Year without totally messing with our heads.

Longhorn Life: Your book “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You” focuses on the “psychological footprints” left by people in their various rooms, and the relationship between those spaces and the individual’s personality. What sparked your interest in this topic?

Gosling: I think most of us feel we get a sense of what someone is like after spending time in their space. I wanted to find out if those intuitions are true. And if they are true, when, why, and how are they true?

LL: According to the notion of reciprocal determinism, a person both affects and is affected by their environment. So, how would a student physically changing their environment - dorm room, apartment, etc. – to become more organized affect them mentally?

Gosling: Students can do some things to become more organized but remember, our personality has a large genetic component and major personality changes are quite hard to bring about. So we have to implement small changes that can be sustained in the long run. So students must try to establish habits that are viable within their life. What’s viable will differ from person to person. For some people, those will be things like trying to put things back in their right place after using them or using a filing system. Things like this require that you establish an organizational system. But we can’t simply become organized by getting a bunch of filing supplies from office depot--those items have to be paired with establishing new sustainable habits.

LL: In what ways can students physically organize themselves to increase their productivity? Which, if any, do you think work most effectively?

Gosling: Unplug the Internet.

LL: How is “spring cleaning,” as in a total purge of unneeded clutter, beneficial to students? Are there any negative effects?

Gosling: Spring cleaning can be effective in that it makes finding things more efficient. But it is also important to take care of one’s psychological needs so getting rid of stuff that connects one psychologically (e.g., photos of loved ones, mementos, etc.) to the space could potentially have a downside.

LL: Getting organized is a tough task for a lot of college students. From a psychological standpoint, do you have any tips for students looking to better organize themselves?

Gosling: As noted above, avoid huge steps because those are unsustainable (because they disrupt too many other things). Focus on establishing small changes in habits.

LL: In addition to first getting organized, are there some techniques students can use to help them stay consistently organized throughout the entire semester?

Gosling: Have a place (e.g., a phone, a notebook) where you write everything down.
It’s easy to think you’ll remember everything when you hear it but these things fade fast and get replaced by new things to remember.