Jennifer Ouellette in The Atlantic:
“Surely you don’t believe in that nonsense.”
It was intended as a rhetorical question, uttered with an implied wink and a smirk. The speaker, an ardent skeptic who prided himself on his rational approach to life, meant no offense. He was merely surprised to find that I, a lover of science, tote a battered key chain embossed with my astrological sign: Taurus. I’ve carried it with me for twenty years, like a personal totem.
It was perfectly reasonable for my skeptical inquirer to assume my key chain says something about me. He was employing cue utilization. We all rely on cues to make snap judgments when we meet new people, and those judgments can often be accurate, at least in broad strokes. Physical attractiveness, race, gender, facial symmetry, skin texture, or facial expressions and body language are all factors that contribute to how we form our impressions of people. Those cues may also include our “stuff”: our choices in fashion, jewelry, tattoos, and key chains all provide clues about who we are, whether we intend them to do so or not.
Social psychologist Sam Gosling is interested in checking out our stuff, but not in a creepy, voyeuristic way. He has studied how we ﬁll our spaces with material things, particularly offices and bedrooms, to better understand what those choices say about our personalities. For instance, certain items function as “conscious identity claims,” things we choose based on how we wish to be perceived by others—the posters, artwork, books, or music we display, for example, or the tattoos we ink onto our bodies. We also ﬁll our personal spaces with “feeling regulators”: photographs of loved ones, family heirlooms, favorite books, or souvenirs from travel to exotic locales—anything that serves to meet some emotional need.
“If you are missing someone, you carry a photo in your wallet, or propped up next to your computer, or you value a necklace that somebody gave to you,” Gosling explained. “You do these things to connect to someone as a sort of proxy, until you see that person again.”