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Keep that messy desk? U study finds ‘chaotic clutter’ may promote creativity

The study’s findings: A tidy, well-ordered environment may promote healthful eating and generosity, but a bit of disorder appears to encourage creative thinking.

messy desk
A tidy and well-ordered environment may promote healthful eating and generosity, but a bit of chaotic clutter appears to encourage creative thinking.

Is it better to work in a clean office or a messy one?
Joseph Redden

The answer may depend on what you’re trying to accomplish. For, according to an intriguing new study from the University of Minnesota, a tidy and well-ordered environment may promote healthful eating and generosity, but a bit of chaotic clutter appears to encourage creative thinking.

“There are some benefits to a neat environment,” noted Joseph Redden, an assistant professor of marketing at the U of M’s Carlson School of Management and one of the co-authors of the study, in an e-mail interview with MinnPost. “These include finding what you want quickly, not accidentally throwing things out, having more space to move around, etc. We are simply observing that there is also a cost to this clean environment — for instance, less creativity.”

Three experiments

The study, which was published online this week in the journal Psychological Science, included three separate experiments. In the first experiment, 34 Dutch university students were randomly assigned to fill out a questionnaire (unrelated to the study’s topic) in either a cluttered or uncluttered office. Each student was given the Euro equivalent of about $5 for his or her participation. After completing the questionnaire, an activity that took 10 minutes, the students were offered an opportunity to donate anonymously to a charity that supplied children with toys and books. They were also told they could choose a snack of an apple or chocolate on their way out.

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Some 82 percent of the students in the uncluttered room donated to the charity, compared with 47 percent in the cluttered room.

Those in the orderly room were also three times more likely to choose the apple over the chocolate.

The experiment “demonstrated that environmental order, more than disorder, encourages health choices and charitable behavior,” concluded Redden and his colleagues.

Greater creativity

In the second experiment, 48 American students were placed in either a cluttered or uncluttered room. Each was then given a standard creativity-measuring “alternative uses task,” which asked them to imagine up to 10 new uses for pingpong balls.

The ideas that the students came up with were later scored for their creativity by two coders who had no idea which room the students had been in. An analysis of those scores revealed that the students in the disorderly room had generated 35 percent more highly creative ideas than those in the orderly room.

“Being creative is aided by breaking away from tradition, order, and convention,” Redden and his colleagues concluded in their paper, “and a disorderly environment seems to help people do just that.”

‘Classic’ vs. ‘new’

In the third experiment, 188 adults, placed randomly in a clean or a cluttered room, were given the choice of ordering a smoothie for themselves with either a “classic” or a “new” boost of unspecified additional ingredients.

The participants in the clean room chose the “classic” option more than twice as often as the “new” option. In the messy room, the pattern was reversed: The participants chose the “new” option twice as often as the “classic” one.

“The results supported our prediction that an orderly environment would activate a mind-set of following convention whereas a disorderly environment would promote exploring new avenues,” wrote Redden and his colleagues.

A tale of two labs

The ideas for these experiments sprang out of the observation by Redden and the study’s lead author, marketing professor Kathleen Vohs, that the behavioral labs at the Carlson School of Management had quite different environments.

“One lab was rather disorganized while the other one was neat,” explained Redden. “We speculated that students might adopt a more conventional approach in the latter, primarily because we were interested in how this might affect our data.”

Much prior work in this area, as Redden and his co-authors note in their study’s discussion section, “has tended to characterize disorderly environments as capable of producing wild, harmful, or bad behavior, and orderly environments as evoking honesty, prosociality, and goodness.”

Research has shown, for example, that people are less likely to steal a bicycle in an “organized” as opposed to a “littered” environment.

But the results of these new experiments suggest that the effects of physical orderliness are much broader and more nuanced than that.

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” Redden and his colleagues write. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

Whether the consequences of these tendencies are “good,” “bad” or neutral depends entirely on the context, they add.

Still, our culture tends to place a higher value on clean work environments.

The reason for this is not clear, says Redden. “I would guess, it is because the benefits I previously listed might be relevant more often than creativity and trying new things,” he explained. “As well, certainly a norm has developed for cleanliness that is reinforced from an early age (typically children must pick up their things and clean their room before bed).”

Applicable to other settings 

The effects seen in the three U of M experiments are likely to be found in other, non-office environments, including virtual ones, such as websites, according to Redden.

“We believe that there is nothing particular about the rooms we used — in fact, we intentionally used different rooms across our studies,” he explained. “Our theory would certainly suggest that these mindsets are likely to kick-in regardless of the setting. What matters is the presence of disorganization or not.”

Oh, and what about Redden’s own work environment — messy or clean?

“My office is meticulously neat as I throw away anything that is less than one year old,” he confessed. “Kathleen’s office is more typical of an academic, which is messy by my crazy standards.”