Intuitively building an idea of a person from snapshots of their life – “thin-slicing” as it is known in psychology – is the next best thing when you can’t actually meet them face-to-face. Psychologist Sam Gosling at the University of Texas, who studies how people form impressions of others from cues in their environment, has found that someone’s possessions can teach us more about them than a direct conversation, and more even than what their friends or colleagues might say about them.

If you’re seeking to “read” someone from pictures of their apartment, Gosling’s research can help you.

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Humans are remarkably adept at navigating complex social worlds and instinctively picking up on familiar signs that might indicate compatibility.

As a species we’ve been doing this for millions of years; as individuals all our lives.

Called Serendipity, the idea was hatched by Nathan Eagle, Pedro Yip, Steve Kannan, and Doochan Han at MIT's Media Lab in Boston.

They hope to make technology-assisted dating more spontaneous and closer to the way people meet socially.

Thinking carefully about our dream date, and about our own personality, and allowing an algorithm to compute a match, may be an intriguing exercise.

But as Eli Finkel at Northwestern University and colleagues have shown, it isn’t that helpful. In January, I launched a new dating site called 21Pictures which tries to use insights from psychology to create a more intuitive experience, where daters can make the most of their hard-wired social intelligence when choosing a partner.

We hope to learn, among other things, what kind of pictures give the best insights, what content users most readily connect with, and what someone’s choice of pictures says about them.

We’d also like to know if users, when given the opportunity to delve more deeply into people’s lives (rather than just swiping through a series of head shots), spend more time considering individual profiles, and are more satisfied and ultimately more successful if they have fewer profiles to browse (as predicted by numerous studies).

He’s discovered, for instance, that a messy desk does not necessarily denote a messy mind, or even a creative one: variety of reading material is more telling than quantity.