To Know Me Is to Know My Stuff

"Stop dressing like a slob."

"You're the kind of person who's way into trolls and elves."

"I'm a brown-noser."

"I love you."

Some people might have trouble verbalizing those thoughts, but this holiday season you could be saying them anyway -- whether through a fancy outfit given to a frumpy dresser, a gift inspired by the recipient's mantle-top gnome figurines, or an extravagant gift to a boss or to a prospective life partner.

Psychologists and marketers say the gifts we give and the objects we own may say more than we realize -- and often can be windows into our personalities.

"What you own are the extensions of yourself," says Mirriam Tatzel, a consumer psychologist and professor of human development at Empire State College in New York.

"All objects have some symbolic meaning," she adds. "The things that we wear and the things that we buy say something about you. ... The car you drive, all of it, is in some ways a reflection of personality and lifestyle."

Many people understand this on an intuitive level, but to the marketing industry it's a science. Whether you realize it or not, the industry likely has used knowledge of your music, video, book and product purchases -- as well as the demographics of where you live -- to figure out what type of person you are and how to sell you other stuff you'll likely fall for.

Marketer's Method

If you're still looking for the perfect gift for that hard-to-shop-for loved one, maybe you can take a page out of the marketer's book. Since marketers already likely have targeted your gift recipient with direct mail, it might pay to start with what's on their coffee table.

"You can probably tell a lot about somebody by what catalogs they get," Tatzel says.

Next, look around the room. Check out the knick-knacks to get an idea of what the person likes, and take down book or music titles so you can look them up later via online merchants, Tatzel suggests. Such merchants can offer basic market research by displaying other items commonly purchased by people who bought the same book or album.

Look at the person: Personal style -- such as how someone dresses, how they wear their hair, what car they drive and what magazines they subscribe to -- also gives obvious personality cues, marketers say.

More broadly, it might pay to ask: "Is the person I'm dealing with a 'thinker' who likes details and books; an 'achiever' who likes time-savers and luxury items; or an 'experiencer' who likes excitement, cutting-edge fashion and products that help them stand out from the crowd? Or do they have another type of personality?"

What You Buy and Where You Live

These are the types of questions that marketing pros like Carrie Hollenberg ask. Hollenberg is a senior consultant with SRI Consulting Business Intelligence's VALS program, which claims to have performed psychological tests on hundreds of subjects to match psychology to product-purchasing tendencies.

"We have identified eight basic types of U.S. adult consumers, and if you look at the types of media they buy and the products they own, they're very different," Hollenberg says. "If you know just one product a person owns, you really don't know what they are, but if you know enough products, you can make an educated guess."

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