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People with messy offices are seen as being less agreeable, more neurotic, study finds

messy desk
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash
The Michigan study found that people tend to perceive the owner of a messy office as being less agreeable and more neurotic than someone whose workspace appears organized and tidy.

As University of Minnesota researchers reported a few years ago, having a messy desk may help spark your creativity.

That’s a good thing.

But, according to a recent study by a team of psychologists at the University of Michigan, a cluttered desk may also lead your co-workers to think less well of you.

And that may not be so good.

Specifically, the Michigan study found that people tend to perceive the owner of a messy office as being less agreeable and more neurotic than someone whose workspace appears organized and tidy.

Yes, that’s stereotyping. But, alas, those perceptions can consciously or unconsciously affect how other people behave toward you, say the study’s authors.

This research was published last November in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. I’m only getting to it now because the study was, ahem, buried among a stack of papers on my desk.

Setting up the rooms

For the study, the Michigan researchers recruited a total of 165 undergraduate students for three separate experiments. The students were randomly assigned to sit in one of two researcher’s offices. The offices were identical in size, shape, color and lighting. Each also contained identical standard office items, including bookshelves, filing cabinet, computer monitor, wastepaper basket and desk supplies.

Scattered around the offices were identical personal items, including wall art (about the joy of bicycling), a glass vase stuffed with wine corks, a cup of candy and a photo of a baby. Each room was decorated to make it appear as if it belonged to a man.

One office, however, was clean and uncluttered, while the other was either “somewhat” or “very” messy.

In the “neat” office, for example, the papers were carefully stacked on the desk, books and journals were upright on the bookshelves, file drawers had typewritten labels and all trash was in the wastebasket.

The “somewhat” messy office, on the other hand, had books leaning at angles, a file drawer partially open, file labels scrawled in pen, a candy wrapper on the desk and papers lying on the floor. The “very” messy office (which was used in two of the three experiments) appeared even more disorganized.

Assessed ‘Big Five’ personality traits

In each experiment, the student participants were asked to assess the “Big Five” personality traits — openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion-introversion, agreeableness and neuroticism — of the researcher who worked in the office. Across all three experiments, the students judged the researcher in the messy office to be less agreeable and more neurotic than the one in the neat office.

What these judgments were based on is not clear, as the student participants were not asked about them. The study’s authors suggest, however, that the students may have scored the “messy” researcher lower on agreeableness based on the assumption that since the researcher didn’t seem to care how his office looked to other people, he was also less caring of others’ opinions.

And they may have given that researcher a higher neuroticism score based on a belief that his inability to keep his office organized showed more impulsiveness.

The strongest trait difference between the rated personalities of the two researchers was, however, for conscientiousness. The person who occupied the “neat” office was deemed by the students to be more conscientious (someone with more self-discipline).

Perceptions may matter

The study involved only a relatively small number of people, and all were undergraduate students. A larger — and older — group of people might have judged the occupants of the two rooms differently.

Still, as the Michigan researchers point out, their results support the findings of earlier studies on this topic.

They also note that people’s impressions of others affect how they interact with them.

“Once trait information about a target becomes activated in perceivers’ minds, either consciously or unconsciously, that information can subsequently affect how they process information about, the types of questions they ask of, and how they behave toward the target, possibly bringing out the very trait information that they expected to see from the target in the first place,” the researchers write.

Perhaps the take-home message of this study is not about tidying up your desk, but about not stereotyping other people based solely on how messy (or clean) they keep their workspaces.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Personality and Individual Differences website, but the full paper is behind a paywall.

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