If you want to know what someone is like and don’t have much to go on, check out what they’re wearing on their feet. Shoes say a lot about someone’s character, according to psychologists at the University of Kansas, who found that volunteers were remarkably accurate at predicting a person’s personality traits from photographs of their footwear.
Here’s what to look for. People who wear masculine, high-top or visibly uncomfortable shoes tend to be less agreeable. Pointy shoes and high heels may be signs of emotional instability. Those with attractive shoes in good repair are more likely to be conscientious. Very dull shoes suggest attachment anxiety. Colourful or bright shoes are the hallmark of an extrovert, and also someone who is open to experience.
You're the mess you live in
This is a great example of why looking at pictures of people’s lives, rather than just their faces (which give you limited information), can be so useful. Photos of someone’s stuff – shoes, books, music collections, clothes on a bedroom floor – give us a glimpse of their inner worlds. Seeing how someone decorates their home, or the kind of trainers they wear, or the books they read, can tell us a lot more than another shot of them smouldering into the camera.
Building a sense of a person from snapshots of their life – “thin-slicing” as it is known in psychology – is a valid strategy when you can’t actually meet them face-to-face. It has plenty of science on its side. One of psychologist Sam Gosling’s more intriguing research activities is riffling around people’s bedrooms and offices for clues to their personality (all in the name of serious study). He thinks a person’s possessions can tell us more about them than a live conversation, and more even than what their best friends say about them.
In the course of his research, Gosling has challenged many myths. For instance, a messy desk does not necessarily denote a messy mind, or a creative one: variety of reading material is more telling than quantity. Different domains give different insights. “If you want to learn about your date’s dependability, his music collection won’t help much,” he writes in his 2008 book Snoop: What your stuff says about you (Basic Books). “That would be a better place to find out about his interest and values. But if it’s his political stance you’re after, you’ll figure that out within two minutes of entering his apartment – should you make it that far.”
These kinds of insights are valuable if you’re trying to figure out how to describe yourself in pictures. They should also help you interpret the pictures of others. Which brings us to Peter Menzel. Menzel is a photojournalist who in the early 1990s travelled the world photographing ordinary families in front of their houses with all their possessions spread out around them. His aim was to show the impact of the global economy on the cultural heritage of communities, but the images are also deeply personal portraits. They tell us things about those families that interviews could never touch. See more in Menzel’s book Material World: A global family portrait (Sierra Club Books, 1994).