Messy Desk? Maybe You Gorge on Chocolate, but You’re Probably Creative

Untidy spaces inspire desire for unknown, break with tradition, study finds 

By Dana Wilkie Dec 2, 2013
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Few stories depict the classic tension between neatniks and slobs like the 2005 remake of “Yours, Mine & Ours,” featuring Frank, the Coast Guard admiral fond of the term “shipshape,” and his designer wife, Helen, who insists “Homes are for free expression, not good impressions.”

The conventional employer might favor Frank’s approach: A tidy desk, many may conclude, conveys organization, motivation and clarity of thought.

Except the same desk might also reflect stifled thinking and lack of creativity, according to a study by University of Minnesota researchers that Psychological Science published online in August 2013.

The study of 270 U.S. adults and U.S. and Dutch students found that while physical order produces healthy food choices and charitable giving, disorder produces a desire for the unknown, new insights and creativity.

“Prior work has tended to characterize disorderly environments as capable of producing wild, harmful, or bad behavior, and orderly environments as evoking honesty, prosociality and goodness,” wrote the researchers, who added that their results indicate that “disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments … encourage convention and playing it safe. Such tendencies can imply good, bad, or simply neutral consequences depending on the context.” 

The researchers wanted to challenge the broad sociological and psychological conclusion that “environmental disorder impels bad or even destructive behavior, whereas cleanliness supports normatively good and moral outcomes.” They conducted three experiments, the results of which supported their notion that “physical orderliness produce[s] effects that are wider ranging than those currently known.”

In the first experiment, 34 Dutch students were assigned to an orderly or a disorderly room, told to fill out a questionnaire, asked to donate to a children’s charity, and then offered an apple or chocolate bar upon leaving. Those in the orderly room donated more than twice as much to the charity as the other group did, and they chose the apple over the chocolate bar more often.

In the second experiment, 48 U.S. students were placed in an orderly or a disorderly room and were asked to find new uses for Ping-Pong balls. Those in the disorderly room came up with ideas that were 28 percent more creative and produced five times as many “highly creative” ideas as those in the orderly room. Among their suggestions: Use the Ping-Pong balls as ice cube trays or attach them to chair legs to protect floors.

“Being creative is aided by breaking away from tradition, order and convention, and a disorderly environment seems to help people do just that,” the researchers observed.

In the third experiment, 188 U.S. adults were put into a disorderly or an orderly room and were asked to pick fruit-smoothie ingredients described as either “classic,” to convey convention, or “new,” to convey novelty.

Participants were more likely to choose the ingredients labeled “classic” if they sat in the orderly room and were more likely to pick those labeled “new” if in the disorderly room. “Orderliness seemed to encourage a general mind-set for conservatism and tradition, and disorder had the effect of stimulating the desire for the unknown,” the researchers said.

The findings may have implications for the workplace, the researchers noted. As companies move toward desk sharing and smaller workspaces, employees have less room to make a mess.

“The working world is abuzz about cultivating innovation and creativity, endeavors that our findings suggest might be hampered by the minimalist environment,” wrote David Yamada, author of the online blog Minding the Workplace. “While cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow.”

“Many creative individuals with Nobel prizes and other ultra-prestigious awards prefer—and in fact cultivate—messy environments as an aid to their work,” the researchers wrote, adding that one such person was Albert Einstein.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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