Snoop Snoop by Sam Gosling
Publisher: Basic Books
Year: 2008
Pages: 272

I have a weakness for popular science books, even though that sometimes steers me dangerously close to quacks or shallow popsci frauds (think pretty much all of Oprah’s guests….). I picked up Snoop on the strength of its review on Amazon.

Some of you may be familiar with Room Raiders, a sickly sort of reality television show airing on MTV since 2003. In it, three young men or women have their rooms “raided”—that is, inspected—by a member of the opposite sex; at the end, the inspector’s room is summarily raided by the contestants. Any pictures of the people are covered up: the goal is to surmise as much about the person as possible based on the state, condition, and content of his or her room. It’s actually an interesting premise—as we shall see—ruined in this case by the fact that its stars are about keg stand away from being mentally retarded.

Drawing psychological conclusions—Gosling hesitates to use words like “diagnoses”—from the contents of rooms is the central premise of both Dr. Gosling’s research and therefore of this book. Jay Dixit’s review for the Washington Post began like this:

In 1942, as the United States was entering World War II, the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor to today’s CIA — was scrambling to find promising spies to go behind enemy lines. One of the aptitude exams it developed was the Belongings Test, in which candidates had to draw conclusions about a man based purely on items in his bedroom: clothes, a timetable, a ticket receipt.

This is intriguing; had the book been more historical survey about the history of this kind of research and less a novelization of Room Raiders with a gloss of scientific respectability, I think perhaps I would have been more impressed. But whenever he waxed expository, Gosling tended to work with broad MTV-style brushstrokes. I felt as though it worked hard to appear imbued with an exciting kind of voyeurism, but with the exception of Gosling’s concrete correlative data that he cites from his various studies, much of what’s said is common-sense ideas.

This exception deals with what Gosling refers to as The Big Five, which are five fundamental personality traits. What Gosling found about the correlation between rooms and Big Five scores is tripartite:

  1. Some obvious correlations exist, and likewise there are some Big Five factors that are very closely tied to information gleaned in “snooping.”
  2. Other observational data becomes a red herring: the conclusion that observers are likely to draw has no apparent correlative basis.
  3. Some Big Five traits don’t have observable correlations in the realm of snooping.

As a matter of course, Gosling ends up preferring the “Belgian” model (so named because it is used by Hercule Poirot) of using a variety of smaller clues to piece together a more coherent model1.

What ultimately bothered me about Snoop was that I felt Gosling spent too much time farting around with marginal examples and somewhat rambling stories and not nearly enough time moving his point across, if indeed he had a coherent point to begin with. The data being someone scattershot, it seems as though it’s conclusion was little more than “Snooping can tell you a lot about someone. Or not.” This, to me, does not make for a satisfying read.

  1. I would liken it more to Millikan’s oil-drop experiment, but what do I know?[]
§3941 · July 27, 2009 · Tags: , , , , , , ·

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