It's elementary my dear Watson!
February 28, 2012 3:29 PM   Subscribe

What small details on a person or surroundings would indicate a person's personality / job / background?

In the CBS crime drama 'The Mentalist', Patrick Jane (the protagonist) will typically identify a person's background, job etc. simply by looking and picking up on the small details. This is similar to that of Sherlock Holmes and cold readers. I imagine that there is a certain 'repertoire' of base knowledge from which they can make their assumptions from, for example a person with a ring on the ring finger would be married however they are fiddling with it indicating a possible affair.

What other tidbits of information can be used and combined to deduce much larger possibilities?

I thank you my fellow detectives ;)
posted by SRMorris to Human Relations (18 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
There was a question earlier (maybe someone with better search-fu can find it) on identifying what sport a person plays based on musculature or gait.
posted by thewestinggame at 3:32 PM on February 28, 2012

Ah! Found it!
posted by thewestinggame at 3:35 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Check out this book Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling. A review of the book on the book's website reads:

“If you are looking for a lover, a job, a new house, or a serial killer, Snoop is for you. It’s great science and a fun read by a world-renowned personality researcher.” –James W. Pennebaker, author of Opening Up and Writing to Heal
posted by OsoMeaty at 3:35 PM on February 28, 2012 [8 favorites]

Have a look at FBI profiling.
posted by nickrussell at 3:37 PM on February 28, 2012

Maybe not quite what you're looking for but here is an interesting OkTrends (makers of OkCupid) article where they analyze their data to see how people match up on questions. Like if you wanted to know how someone felt about topic A, you'd ask about unrelated topic B because the correlation was very high.

OkTrends article

Using it could still lead to Sherlock-ian dazzling. :)
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 3:39 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, the story of George Metesky the "Mad Bomber" is an early case of profiling being eerily correct. Wiki link but I'm sure there are better articles out there.

"Brussel additionally predicted to his visitors that when the bomber was caught, he would be wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned."
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 3:44 PM on February 28, 2012

Speaking of George Metesky, there are definitely articles, but they might not lead where you'd expect. (via)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:48 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

“How, in the name of good fortune, did you know all that, Mr. Holmes?” he asked. “How did you know, for example, that I did manual labour. It's as true as gospel, for I began as a ship's carpenter.”

“Your hands, my dear sir. Your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.”

“Well, the snuff, then, and the Freemasonry?”

“I won't insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the strict rules of your order, you use an arc and compass breastpin.”

“Ah, of course, I forgot that. But the writing?”

“What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiny for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk.”

“Well, but China?”

“The fish which you have tattooed immediately above your right wrist could only have been done in China. I have made a small study of tattoo marks, and have even contributed to the literature of the subject. That trick of staining the fishes' scales of a delicate pink is quite peculiar to China. When, in addition, I see a Chinese coin hanging from your watch-chain, the matter becomes even more simple.”
posted by Nomyte at 5:43 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This might be a little off topic, but I am a writer for The Mentalist. I've read a lot of cold-reading books that try to list little facts about people, and I've been to cold-reading shows to see mentalists at work. Also, I make up this stuff for a living.

My favorite piece of observation from Jane came from before I was on the show: Jane figures out that a man in a wheelchair is faking it, because he looks at the bottom of the man's shoes and sees that they are scuffed. What I really like about this is that Jane says that he's been looking at the shoes of wheelchair-bound people for years, and this is the first time it has panned out.

Jane doesn't often resort to esoteric knowledge in order to read people. The real trick to cold reading isn't in having a huge pile of facts at your fingertips. It is being able to be completely wrong about something while appearing to be correct. Yes, there are some things that you can take flyers on and be correct (most people have a sick, elderly relative, most people have been in love, most people think they are under-appreciated at work). But mostly it's about highlighting your hits and covering up your bad guesses. Patrick Jane is more of a cold-reader than Holmes is. Holmes has a huge reserve of facts, where Jane understands people psychologically, and most of his insights occur on that level. In other words, Holmes makes a study of different types of tobacco ashes, where Jane assumes your secret smoking is because you're hiding a terrible secret (or some such). Also, Jane is sometimes wrong in his assumptions, but he blows past those moments so quickly you might think he is always right. (And of course the show isn't completely realistic, and Jane is far more observant than the average man.)

You might want to check out a couple of mentalist books, such as Psychological Subtleties, The Trick Brain or 13 Steps to Mentalism. You'll find that mentalists are more likely to use psychological forces and "hot reading" (or "cheating") than incredible powers of observation.
posted by Bookhouse at 6:02 PM on February 28, 2012 [140 favorites]

Best answer: Previously on AskMeFi
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:39 PM on February 28, 2012

Sometimes I have to assess people quickly, and this isn't Sherlock Holmes because it's real life but I always make sure to look at and take note of people's hands. Look at them and make sure to shake hands and pay attention to how a person's hand feels. Who cares how they shake.

Hands usually give a lot away about a person, soft hands, callouses in certain places, stains and stuff under fingernails, length of fingernails, jewelry, bruises and cuts, scars, tattoos. It's very deductive though, look at their hands and try to imagine how they might have gotten like that. Someone must have written a book on it.
posted by fuq at 6:49 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

My calloused hands are frequently covered in small cuts.. but I don't work with my hands.. I work in a normal computer/office job.

My hands are calloused because I play the drums in a band. They're scratched and cut up because I have a vicious cat.

Don't try to read too much into things.
posted by j03 at 10:55 PM on March 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

How do you he wasn't going to read into your hands exactly that?
posted by charles148 at 8:37 AM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

From The Princess and Curdie, George MacDonald:
Since it is always what they do, whether in their minds or their bodies, that makes men go down to be less than men, that is, beasts, the change always comes first in their hands - and first of all in the inside hands, to which the outside ones are but as the gloves. They do not know it of course; for a beast does not know that he is a beast, and the nearer a man gets to being a beast the less he knows it. Neither can their best friends, or their worst enemies indeed, see any difference in their hands, for they see only the living gloves of them. But there are not a few who feel a vague something repulsive in the hand of a man who is growing a beast.

'Now here is what the rose-fire has done for you: it has made your hands so knowing and wise, it has brought your real hands so near the outside of your flesh gloves, that you will henceforth be able to know at once the hand of a man who is growing into a beast; nay, more - you will at once feel the foot of the beast he is growing, just as if there were no glove made like a man's hand between you and it.

'Hence of course it follows that you will be able often, and with further education in zoology, will be able always to tell, not only when a man is growing a beast, but what beast he is growing to, for you will know the foot - what it is and what beast's it is. According, then, to your knowledge of that beast will be your knowledge of the man you have to do with. Only there is one beautiful and awful thing about it, that if any one gifted with this perception once uses it for his own ends, it is taken from him, and then, not knowing that it is gone, he is in a far worse condition than before, for he trusts to what he has not got.'

'How dreadful!' Said Curdie. 'I must mind what I am about.'

'Yes, indeed, Curdie.'
posted by tangerine at 9:17 PM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

On musicians: I know a couple of violinists. Neither of them are robust hand-shakers, and try to avoid shaking hands altogether. One explained, "I never shake hands. You never know when someone's going to crush your fingers." If I hadn't know this about them, I'd have assumed a germ phobia.

I've been learning the harp this past year. At a recent trip to a theme park, I discovered that my fingerprints are now unreadable by electronic scanner, except for my littlest fingers (which never touch a string).

Similarly, my friends who are cleaning professionals don't have clear fingerprints either. Too much exposure to harsh chemicals. (I don't like to think about what they've absorbed through their skin).
posted by theplotchickens at 4:45 PM on March 3, 2012

The Holmes/Mentalist plot device is the variant on something more typically see in shows like Bones or CSI - the swift dismissal of ambiguity.

That is that the evidence typically or quickly points down to a narrow range of options. Smelling of smoke always means you are a smoker (not a passive smoker); the plant seeds found in the victim's breast pocket are only found in one small valley outside LA etc etc

A more accurate, and realistic way to get details is by smarter questioning, and clandestine questioning.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:11 AM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

You never know when someone's going to crush your fingers.

I have this fear too, based on past experience. But what does it tell you about the person doing the crushing?
posted by sneebler at 9:40 AM on March 8, 2012

My favorite piece of observation from Jane came from before I was on the show: Jane figures out that a man in a wheelchair is faking it, because he looks at the bottom of the man's shoes and sees that they are scuffed.
This doesn't really work. When I spent a year or so unable to go out without my power wheelchair, I still wore my old shoes, which had seen some wear. It was both impractical and unnecessary to go shopping for new ones. Going out shopping is hard work when you're in a wheelchair.
posted by artistic verisimilitude at 3:17 PM on March 9, 2012

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