What your computer says about you

If you can tell a lot about a man from his shoes, then the computer he personalises with wallpaper, icons and his preferred software provides an even more telling snapshot of his psyche.

What your computer says about you

Profiling users from their PC desktop is an inexact science, but there’s no doubt that classical psychological profiles are reflected in computer use.

You could view an unconfigured computer system as being something like a Rorschach test

“You could view an unconfigured computer system as being something like a Rorschach test – the one where you show someone a blurry inkblot image and ask ‘what is that?’ – and make inferences about the person’s state of mind from their answers,” said Stephen Furner, a chartered psychologist working in technology.

“You choose the picture, the frames, the words spinning around in your screensaver. These are choices that an individual makes and that express an environment where they feel comfortable. It can say a lot about you.”

Desktop diagnosis

Identifying and classifying personality is a complicated process, relying on the so-called Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. All five can be reflected in our computing habits.

“People like things black and white, so in terms of something such as ‘openness’ you’re either inventive and curious or you’re consistent and cautious,” said Tom Stewart, a psychologist and chairman of usability and ergonomics consultant System Concepts. “Obviously everyone is somewhere in between the extremes of the Big Five categories, and these traits are easy to see in things such as a desktop.

PC personalities

Tidy Tims
Efficient, clean desktop with little clutter. Well-organised inbox shows attention to detail, displaying the more organised aspects of the conscientiousness trait. Unlikely to be distracted by rolling emails and social media, but spends an age organising files.

“If there are icons all over the place, instead of in a neat and tidy fashion, the conscientiousness dimension is the one that applies – you have efficient and organised at one end, versus easy-going and careless at the other.

“If you have an untidy physical desk, pockets full of bits of paper and the house has stuff scattered everywhere, then your desktop is going to look the same – there will be icons everywhere and randomly saved files.”

According to a Microsoft-commissioned report, the desktop can reveal your attitudes or how you might cope under pressure, and could help employers to judge the mindset of workers. The study, by psychologist Donna Dawson, highlighted that having dozens of icons suggests disorganisation and possible insecurity, while photos and screensavers displaying past successes could be a sign of an ego that could grate on colleagues.

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