Messy desk, creative mind

Stevehullphotography |
Aug 07 2013 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Do you file or pile? Because the state of your desk says a lot about the type of person you are, according researchers from the University of Minnesota. If you're surrounded by clutter and piles of paper, the chances are that you're a creative and original thinker. But if it's a haven of neatness with everything in its place, you're likely to be someone who follows rules, eats healthily and is generous with their time and money.

A team led by Kathleen Vohs, a consumer psychologist and professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, examined the behaviour of people working at messy and clean desks.

Their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggest that mess encourages something that firms, industries, and societies want more of - creativity.

"Previous research has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things, such as not engaging in crime, litter and showing more generosity," Profesor Vohs said. "We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting."

In the first of several experiments, participants were asked to fill out questionnaires in an office. Some completed the task in a clean and orderly office, while others did so in an unkempt one with papers and office supplies strewn about randomly.

Afterward, the participants were presented with the opportunity to donate to a charity and they were allowed to take a snack of chocolate or an apple on their way out.

The researchers found that being in a clean room seemed to encourage people to do what was expected of them. Compared with participants in the messy room, they donated more of their own money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar.

But in another experiment, participants were asked to come up with new uses for ping pong balls. Overall, the participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses as their clean-room counterparts. But their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges.

Intriguingly, when participants were given a choice between a new product and an established one, those in the messy room were more likely to prefer the novel one Ė a signal that being in a disorderly environment stimulates a release from conventionality. In contrast, participants in a tidy room preferred the established product over the new one.

"Just making that environment tidy or unkempt made a massive difference in people's behaviour," Professor Vohs said. "Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe."

But it isn't just our immediate physical environment that can be affected by this phenomenon. According to Professor Vohs, the effects could even have an impact on the internet, with the "tidiness" of a webpage predicting the same kind of behaviour.

"Whether you have control over the tidiness of the environment or not, you are exposed to it and our research shows it can affect you," she said.