The Psychology of Shacking Up

What does your living room reveal about your relationship? Plenty, says UT psychology researcher Lindsay Graham.

As I hover over the stove, stirring a pot of pasta, the sounds emanating from the next room are hard to ignore. They include the frequent click of a camera shutter, several whispered conversations, the scribbling of a pen on paper, and the shuffling of five pairs of feet.

Curiosity finally wins out when I hear an excited “oooh!,” as if a treasure chest has just turned up behind my sofa. Even though I’ve promised to stay out of the way as Lindsay Graham and her research team study my living room—seeing me could influence their results, I’ve been told—I sneak a furtive glance from the kitchen. All I can see is the backs of three student researchers kneeling around my coffee table, closely examining a ceramic tchotchke.

Graham is a UT doctoral student in psychology, and I’m a participant in the Couples’ Home Study, her dissertation project. This year, Graham (who studies under psychology professor Sam Gosling, author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You) and her team analyzed the living rooms of 102 cohabiting couples in the hopes of learning more about the link between home décor and personality, as well as relationship satisfaction. Our homes, Graham argues, are an important but poorly understood aspect of social psychology.


“Think about how much time you spend in your home,” she says. “So much of our lives happen there, but we don’t really understand how our spaces reflect who we are. Even less research has been done on how a couple creates a shared space. How do people make decisions about those spaces? Are there differences between the spaces of a happy couple or an unhappy couple, for example? These are the kinds of questions we’re exploring.”

The study is meticulous. After Graham and her assistants catalogued every item in my living room—chosen, she explains, because it’s a room couples share with each other and with guests—they ranked the room on a variety of traits, including bohemian, conservative, cozy, and modern. Then the researchers made guesses about my and my boyfriend’s personality as a couple based on what they observed—assigning us values for openness, neuroticism, and extraversion, among others. We also filled out self-reports for the same traits, and the researchers even contacted a few of our friends and family members to have them describe us.

Now Graham is in the data-crunching stage—comparing all those numbers to see if any correlations show up between, say, a couple’s curtain choice and their level of introversion. Though the results aren’t in yet, Graham has already made some fascinating observations. “We noticed that couples tend to be all-or-nothing when it comes to photos of themselves,” she says. “There are either tons of photos of their wedding day or their travels, or none at all. I can’t wait to see what that might mean.”

IMG_0505Previous studies, Graham says, have found that people who display candles tend to be more open to new experiences, and that more photos of people indicate extraversion. Men tend to hang hooks on the wall far more often than women do. Motivational posters have even been linked to neuroticism.

One thing is clear: in a nation that spends $65 billion per year on home décor (according to a 2008 Unity Marketing study), Graham’s findings could have serious commercial value. “What if we could inform consumers about which items in their homes might really be linked to well-being?” Graham asks. “Space matters. Our surroundings have the potential to influence us in really big ways, even if we don’t usually realize it.”

Photos by Jesse Pye.


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