Messiness and Creativity

There's something to be said for a messy desk.

That's according to a study published this month in Psychological Science. The researchers, led by Kathleen Vohs of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, concluded that disorder sometimes leads to creativity.

Vohs decided to do the experiment after seeing what happened when her class had to change laboratory rooms. “I was once doing experiments in an old, worn, creaky building,” she told Heathline. “Then my department moved to a shiny new building. Everyone's behavior changed!”

She developed a hypothesis that tidy rooms lead people to do what's expected of them. “Then we thought, 'we should see if there is a way to think about something good happening when people don't do what is typical or normal.' And that's a working definition of creativity.”

In an experiment involving 48 students, University of Minnesota student collaborator Ryan Rahinel came up with the idea to split them into messy and clean room groups. Rahinel then told the students that they had been hired by a ping-pong ball manufacturer to come up with 10 new uses for ping-pong balls.

Two coders, unaware of the circumstances, assessed the ideas on a three-point creativity scale. Those in the messy room came up with more creative ideas.

“I know that many corporations insist on order, when they could be benefiting from more creativity,” Vohs said. “But there are other firms for which creativity is a no-no. Think 'creative accounting.'”

Surprising Facts About Neat-Nicks

The study also confirmed some unusual theories about those who appreciate tidiness, including:

  • Those who value order tend to be more generous. More than 30 Dutch students participated in an experiment in which they were split into different rooms—one messy, one orderly. When asked whether they would like to donate to a charity that provides toys and books for children, those in the tidy room proved more likely to make a donation.
  • Neatness promotes healthy eating. After spending time filling out questionnaires, participants in the University of Minnesota experiment selected a treat, either an apple or a chocolate bar. Those in the tidy room tended to pick apples. The subjects in the messy room had a greater desire for chocolate bars.
  • Order promotes tradition. Almost 200 U.S. adults were divided into cluttered and spiffy rooms and then offered smoothies from a menu. Those in the cluttered room chose smoothies with “New” next to them on the menu more often that those in the neat room, who tended to pick smoothies labeled “Classic.”

Kristin Everett, an automotive marketing executive in Eau Claire, Wis., fits the bill for a tidy person. She is also extraordinarily giving, having served on the boards of many charitable organizations. She currently helps run her daughter's group, Katharine's Wish, which focuses on collecting toys and books for hospitalized children.

But Everett believes she has a creative side, too, having also worked as a TV news anchor.

“Having a tidy desk may be boring and traditional according to the study, but it works for me and I think it saves a lot of time and potential mistakes, so I might as well own it,” she told Healthline.

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