Compliments of Kyle and Kelly Adams, via Flickr

Dr. Sam Gosling, psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin describes “behavioral seepage” as clues we leave by the type, amount, and condition of the items with which we surround ourselves. He’s a psychological anthropologist of sorts, a visual sleuth who scans individual living spaces to determine something about the personality of its inhabitant. He found for example (not surprisingly) that conscientious individuals have neat, clean, and organized offices. 

Others are however more oblivious and apathetic regarding the presentation they make. Gosling’s (2008) research got me thinking about the personality of individuals who maintain messy offices, and in particular, those whose mess is visible to everyone around them – like in a cube or a bull pen environment. Coworkers see the imposition of your stuff like a silent parade that precedes you.

The preceding sentence begs the question: What about people in a communal space who maintain their belongings in what appears to be a visual assault on those around them? Collateral mess could be the byproduct of people who refuse to see themselves in a negative light, and who engage in a self-proclamation of importance. In a nutshell, your coworker’s unsightly belongings could be the tell tale signs of a narcissist, one who displays his or her dominance through a jumbled strewn assortment of possessions. Gosling (2008) makes an interesting claim about these individuals: “…by making it unpleasant to challenge them, narcissists can reassure themselves that they must be right because their opponents have backed down” (Gosling, 2008, p. 118).

As Sam Vaknin (a recovering narcissist) argues, the personality disordered are beset by chronic anger. Narcissists convince themselves that they are correct (regardless of the circumstance), because they have a rapacious need for positive affirmation. Regarding their space, narcissists may most often be the ones who fail to follow set procedure, and who engage in a vicious assault on those who dare question their practice. Mess without boundaries is the non-verbal equivalent of shouting – it’s an insensitive intrusion onto the space of other people, and a form of projectile narcissism. Gosling (2008) further points out that people, upon seeing a messy office, may assume that the inhabitant is disagreeable.

Narcissists are most likely to engage in an ostentatious display of material clutter, a callous disregard for convention, and an insensitive imposition which manifests in physical mayhem. Not surprisingly, they possess an obtuseness which obliterates the importance of other people. Like a child who was never taught to put away his toys or to restrain his temper, the narcissist marches forward unabashed by how he (or she) is viewed by his or her work group. Narcissists exist in a regressive state of infantilism, a demeanor of uproar that ensures they appear important to their colonized constituency. They engage in bully creep: a persistent encroachment that results in the domination of those nearby, and an arrogant sense of entitlement that proclaims, “Rules don’t apply to me.”



Gosling, S. (2008). Snoop: What your stuff says about you. New York: Basic Books.

Vaknin, S. (2005). Malignant self-love: Narcissism revisited. Prague: Narcissus Publications.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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