Tidy desk or messy desk? Each has its benefits

August 6, 2013, Association for Psychological Science

Working at a clean and prim desk may promote healthy eating, generosity, and conventionality, according to new research. But, the research also shows that a messy desk may confer its own benefits, promoting creative thinking and stimulating new ideas.

The new studies, conducted by psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs and her fellow researchers at the University of Minnesota are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"Prior work has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things: Not engage in crime, not litter, and show more ," Vohs explains. "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 some questionnaires in an office. Some completed the task in a clean and orderly office, while others did so in an unkempt one – papers were strewn about, and office supplies were cluttered here and there.

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

Being in a clean room seemed to encourage people to do what was expected of them, Vohs explains. Compared with participants in the messy room, they donated more of their own money to charity and were more likely to choose the over the .

But the researchers hypothesized that messiness might have its virtues as well. In another experiment, participants were asked to come up with new uses for ping pong balls.

Overall, 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.

"Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of: Creativity," says Vohs.

The researchers also found that 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 – a signal that being in a disorderly environment stimulates a release from conventionality. Whereas participants in a tidy room preferred the established product over the new one.

"Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights," Vohs concludes. "Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe."

Surprisingly, the specific physical location didn't seem to matter:

"We used 6 different locations in our paper – the specifics of the rooms were not important. Just making that environment tidy or unkempt made a whopping difference in people's behavior," says Vohs.

The researchers are continuing to investigate whether these effects might even transfer to a virtual environment: the Internet. Preliminary findings suggest that the tidiness of a webpage predicts the same kind of behaviors.

These preliminary data, coupled with the findings just published, are especially intriguing because of their broad relevance:

"We are all exposed to various kinds of settings, such as in our office space, our homes, our cars, even on the Internet," Vohs observes. "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."

Explore further: To savor the flavor, perform a short ritual first

Related Stories

To savor the flavor, perform a short ritual first

July 22, 2013
Birthday celebrations often follow a formula, including off-key singing, making a birthday wish while blowing out candles, and the ceremonial cutting of the birthday cake. New research suggests that this ritual not only makes ...

Study shows disorder may cause an increase stereotyping

April 8, 2011
(PhysOrg.com) -- A study performed by Dutch social scientists Diederik Stapel and Siegwart Lindenberg, of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, suggests that people may resort to stereotyping to cope with the stress associated ...

Looking out for #1 can make you happy, if you have no choice

October 9, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—We are, at our core, social creatures and we spend considerable time and effort on building and maintaining our relationships with others. As young children, we're taught that "sharing means caring" and, ...

Recommended for you

Self-perception and reality seem to line-up when it comes to judging our own personality

December 14, 2018
When it comes to self-assessment, new U of T research suggests that maybe we do have a pretty good handle on our own personalities after all.

Levels of gene-expression-regulating enzyme altered in brains of people with schizophrenia

December 14, 2018
A study using a PET scan tracer developed at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) has identified, for the first time, epigenetic differences between the brains of individuals ...

Researchers discover abundant source for neuronal cells

December 13, 2018
USC researchers seeking a way to study genetic activity associated with psychiatric disorders have discovered an abundant source of human cells—the nose.

Video game players frequently exposed to graphic content may see world differently

December 13, 2018
People who frequently play violent video games are more immune to disturbing images than non-players, a UNSW-led study into the phenomenon of emotion-induced blindness has shown.

New genetic clues to early-onset form of dementia

December 13, 2018
Unlike the more common Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal dementia tends to afflict young people. It accounts for an estimated 20 percent of all cases of early-onset dementia. Patients with the illness typically begin to ...

How teens deal with stress may affect their blood pressure, immune system

December 13, 2018
Most teens get stressed out by their families from time to time, but whether they bottle those emotions up or put a positive spin on things may affect certain processes in the body, including blood pressure and how immune ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.