Christmas Decoration Psychology

Christmas Decorations and Social Perception

christmas treeIt’s that time of year when human are most irrational: when they bring trees indoors and hang knick-knacks on them. This bizarre tradition is a beloved sign of the winter holidays, and I’m guilty of loving it, too.

Growing up, I remember a house in my neighborhood that never had holiday decorations. Not a light, not a garland, not a novelty candy cane. These days, I understand the many reasons why some people wouldn’t adorn their homes with Christmas decor, but at the time, it was downright weird. Didn’t they know what joy they could be having? What was wrong with those people?

You won’t be surprised to learn that people will judge each other based on just about anything. That includes their homes. What we see from the outside can seem to tell us everything about the people living inside. So what about Christmas decorations? Do rational full-grown adults really judge people based on decorations? You bet.

Judging Friendliness from a House

One thing a person’s home signals is how friendly he or she is. Whether someone decorates the outside of her house for the holidays can reflect how much that person makes friends with her neighbors and feels attached to her neighborhood.

But what do people perceive? When people look at your house, can they guess how friendly and social you are? How do your decorations affect their perceptions of you?

One study collected a bunch of photos of people’s houses. Some of those houses had Christmas decorations and some of them didn’t. The researchers were also able to survey the people who lived in those houses to see how much they cared about their neighborhood and community. So on top of differing in their use of decorations, the houses in the photos also differed in how social their residents actually were.

In the study, participants saw and rated 4 photos. Specifically, they rated how social they thought the inhabitants were, based on looks alone. Even though people saw a mix of houses in various orders, they always saw one decorated house whose residents were social, one decorated house whose residents weren’t social, one undecorated house whose residents were social, and one undecorated house whose residents weren’t social.

Overall, people judged a family as more social when their house had Christmas decorations up than when they didn’t have decorations up. This is like when I judged the non-decorating family in my childhood neighborhood as “creepy.”

The story is a little more complicated, though. When people were looking at undecorated houses, they could tell which families were more social than others…based just on the house! Without the distraction of Christmas decor, people are able to suss out which neighbors are friendly and which aren’t.

Finally, though, when people were looking at decorated houses, they were lured into thinking the non-social residents were more social than the socially active residents!

Our Stuff and Our Personality

Bedroom PersonalityThe Christmas experiment makes it clear that people can figure out what we’re like just by looking at the environments we inhabit. I know I like to stick to a theme, but this isn’t all about Christmas decorations.

In his intriguing book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, Sam Gosling shares his research on the way our personalities show up as residue in the spaces we inhabit.

Across a couple studies, Gosling and his collaborators asked people whether they’d let a stranger come in and peak inside their office or bedroom. These strangers would simply take a look around and rate the room’s occupant, based just on their judgments of the space.

Not only do people tend to reach the same conclusions about an occupant’s personality, but people can pretty accurately guess a person’s personality based just on their office or bedroom. In other words, the personality traits judged by the stranger were consistent with the occupant’s answers on an actual personality test.[1]  It’s worth noting, though, that your bedroom doesn’t reveal everything about you. In these studies, physical environments were best at communicating people’s openness to experience, which is one key personality variable. They’re also pretty good at revealing people’s extraversion and conscientiousness. Consistently, though, the personality trait of “agreeableness” isn’t well reflected in people’s offices or bedrooms.

You Are What You Live In

This research shows how our personalities come out in our physical habitats. Our undecorated homes can communicate how social we are, and our offices and bedrooms can communicate a range of personality traits.

Where it gets interesting is when those habitats are misleading. When the weather gets cold and Christmas is around the corner, people decorate their homes with misleading signals of warmth and community! And isn’t that what the holidays are all about? Pretending to get along with your fellow human beings…

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  It’s worth noting, though, that your bedroom doesn’t reveal everything about you. In these studies, physical environments were best at communicating people’s openness to experience, which is one key personality variable. They’re also pretty good at revealing people’s extraversion and conscientiousness. Consistently, though, the personality trait of “agreeableness” isn’t well reflected in people’s offices or bedrooms.

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