The old adage urges us: Don’t judge a book by its cover. But the reality is that we all judge each other constantly based on personal appearance and first impressions. And the same goes for our houses: they tell people a lot about us, our personalities and our past experiences.
It’s hardly surprising that a home can betray so much about the people who live there. After all, researchers at the University of Kansas discovered that it’s possible to correctly judge a stranger’s age, gender, income, political affiliation and other personality traits, based on nothing more than the shoes on their feet.
At Canopies UK, we wanted to find out more about how the practical and aesthetic changes we make to our properties – from painting the door to trimming the hedge or building a fence – affect the way that people think about us. Can a stranger really make accurate assumptions about your personality based on the colour of your door? We put these questions to a panel of experts, comprising:
- Lindsay T. Graham, Ph.D, Research Specialist at the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley
- Joydeep Bhattacharya, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths University
- Samuel D. Gosling, Professor of Psychology and Author of ‘Snoop: What your stuff says about you’
- Christopher K. Travis, a designer and Chief Executive Officer of Truehome Design Build, who specialises in developing design criteria by using psychological interviews
Here’s what they told us…
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the condition of your house or garden can give away a lot about your personality. In fact, all personal environments – as well as their condition – can highlight important things about the inhabitants, whether or not we’re consciously trying to express ourselves.
“It is easy to imagine that a house or yard that is not tidy is owned by person with a low degree of conscientiousness. A house with a lot of windows, particularly if the shades are up, would imply a high degree of openness. Extraversion can be seen by whether an environment is highly expressive or not, and introversion is often characterised by an environment more protective and private in nature,” explains an upcoming book by designer Christopher K. Travis and personality psychologist Sam Gosling Ph.D.
“The face of a building is called a façade. Drive through any upscale neighbourhood and you will see those façades on display, making claims to success, social position, sophistication, and power. In poor neighbourhoods, buildings also express the general state of being of their inhabitants. Whatever our self-expression or pretence, the truth will be on display to a keen observer of the places in which we live.”
But is it fair for people to leap to conclusions about us, based on nothing more than the fact that our lawn is unkempt or our bins are overly full? What if there are other factors at play?
Professor Lindsay Graham from the University of Austin, Texas draws parallels between the condition of our house and the way we dress for a first date. In both cases, the lack of context that motivated our decisions could lead people to inaccurately judge us.
“Think about your first impression upon meeting someone for a first date. If they show up wearing a stained T-shirt and jeans, you’re going to have a very distinctly different impression than you would of someone who showed up wearing a suit,” says Prof Graham.
“They could each be wearing these outfits for vastly different reasons – perhaps the T-shirt-wearing person wore that shirt because he always gets compliments when he wears it and wanted to look his best for you. But unfortunately, someone spilled coffee on him on the train as he was heading over to meet you. Comparatively, the suit-wearing person is only dressed that way because he didn’t bother going home to change from work before coming to meet you, because he wasn’t very excited to be going on the date in the first place.
“The point is, motive and surrounding circumstances matter just as much as what first meets the eyes. The exteriors of our homes can be very much the same. Sometimes we have complete control over them, and sometimes we don’t. Regardless, they still provide the outside world a first look at who we are.”
Of course, we’d all like our home to reflect well on us. When we build a conservatory or buy new wallpaper, we do it for ourselves – but we also want people to recognise and appreciate our efforts. But do the interior and exterior of our homes reveal different things about us?
As Prof Graham points out, the inside and outside of a property should be considered in different ways. Firstly, we are largely able to control who comes into our home and sees our interior décor. Secondly, we tend to have less control over the exterior: “Often it can take a bit more effort to change the exterior than the interior. For example, painting is almost always somewhat of a large undertaking. However, painting one room, or even one wall, is much less effort than painting the entire exterior of a home.
“Also, oftentimes our exteriors are controlled or influenced by the outside world. For instance, our homeowners’ association may dictate what colours we can and cannot paint our home. Also, we cannot control things like the weather that can alter the façade of your space or your garden. And of course, there is less control over other humans or animals entering the space surrounding your home.”
But while it can be harder to alter the exterior appearance of a home, the changes that we do make here can have a significant impact on how we’re viewed. Simply put, the exterior is outwardly focused, so changes to it are naturally designed to communicate to visitors, neighbours and passers-by.
Christopher K. Travis likens the design of a building’s exterior to the layout of a person’s work desk: “Someone who places a picture of their family on their desk at work, facing towards the entry door, is making a statement to the public about who they are. Whereas if the image faces the person at the desk, its purpose is much more likely to be related to getting an emotional treat or reinforcement for themselves.”
The role of colour in identifying personality traits
The internet is awash with articles declaring that the colour of your curtains or front door can give deep and meaningful insights into your personality. But is there any real evidence to support this? If you choose to paint your door orange, does it really mean you’re a bright and vivacious person, or just that you like the colour?
The truth lies somewhere between those two poles. “Colour is intricately linked with our emotions, and also there is a potential association between colour preference and personality traits,” explains Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya of Goldsmiths University.
“[However,] empirical research evidence is mixed, suggesting that the association may be complex and depends on other factors, like culture, gender and age. There is no research evidence suggesting that the possible link between colour and personality traits will vary from interior to exterior colour. However, I may like to add that choosing an exterior colour also may call for specific personality traits (like agreeableness) to be more engaged.”
Prof Graham agrees that you shouldn’t jump to black-or-white conclusions based on the colour of a person’s property. “My personal favourite colour is green. So, in my old home, I painted a bright, vibrant green accent wall in my living room. This expressed my love of the colour (which reflected a component of my identity: ‘I am someone who likes the colour green’), but it also created a warm, fun vibe for myself and visitors to my space.”
It stands to reason that aesthetic factors – from the condition of a home to the design of the exterior – are judged differently from one culture to the next. Beauty ideals vary significantly between the Eastern and Western worlds. But differences in perception can also be found between the UK and the US.
“Self-expression is more normative in the US, so I would expect to see a greater tendency to make public expression in the US than in the UK,” explains Professor of Psychology Samuel D. Gosling.
Our panel were unanimous: whether we like it or not, people do judge us based on the look, condition and design of our homes. As Christopher K. Travis puts it: “Human beings are in the ‘judging’ business as a species.”
While strangers consciously (and unconsciously) attempt to discern much about us from our home, the reality is that these assessments won’t always be accurate. We may think that we can understand a person by making a split-second judgment. But when it comes to truly comprehending the look of a property, we must also consider the context behind why it looks that way – which is likely to include many factors outside the resident’s control.
“Our spaces shape who we are,” concludes Prof Graham. “This isn’t always in our control – but each aspect of where we live provides another piece of the puzzle about who we are as individuals.”