Does your mom complain about your messy room? Is your desk mounted with so many clothes and books that it’s almost impossible to find what you’re looking for?

Most people can relate; especially students. But there is, of course, some truth in the sentiment “a tidy room is a tidy mind.” Psychologist Sherrie B. Carter states that messiness leads to stress and disorganization, stating, “Messy homes and workspaces leave us feeling anxious, helpless, and overwhelmed. Yet, rarely is clutter recognized as a significant source of stress in our lives.”

But if being messy is so bad for us, then how come so many of us accept it as our way of life? Well, it might not be up to us. Psychological Scientist Kathleen D. Vohs says that a messy desk is a sign of creativity. “Prior work has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things: Not engage in crime, not litter, and show more generosity,” she claims. “We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting.”

Albert Einstein’s desk on the day of his death / Savannah Cox

As said by Albert Einstein himself, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” Vohs seemed to support Einstein’s statement, and she conducted experiments to prove her hypothesis. By looking at the behavior of their participants in different environments, Vohs and her colleagues from the University of Minnesota hoped to find out the true impact of mess. “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,” she explains.

1st Experiment: New vs Classic Smoothies

Image Source: Just A Taste

For the first experiment, rooms were arranged so that one of them was tidy, with everything stacked orderly and organized, and the other was messy, with books and papers scattered haphazardly.

Overall, there were 188 participants who were brought to the laboratory, individually, for a customer-choice experiment. Each individual was assigned to a tidy or a messy room and was given a menu that had fruit smoothie options. There were two versions of the menu created: the first half of the menu was labelled with the word “classic,” whereas the other half of the menu was labelled “new.”

The participants were told to choose a smoothie from the menu. As Vohs predicted, those who were in the tidy room chose smoothies labeled “classic” almost twice as often as messy room participants, who opted for the “new” options, proving that people who were in the tidy room preferred convention and those who were in the messy room preferred originality.  

2nd Experiment: Ping-Pong Ball Ideas

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To further test this, Vohs conducted a second experiment where 48 research subjects came individually to the laboratories, once again with a tidy and a messy room. They were told to imagine that a ping-pong ball factory needed new ideas for the use of ping-pongs. They were asked to write as many ideas as they could. Later, judges rated the creativeness of the ideas.

Those in tidy rooms and messy rooms came up with the same amount of ideas, which means the same amount of effort was put into the task. As expected, the subjects in the messy room were more creative. Not only were the ideas ranked 28 percent higher, but the judges suggested that the ideas were “highly creative.”

“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.”

These results have been confirmed by researchers at Northwestern University, who conducted similar experiments, finding that subjects in the messy room drew more creative pictures and solved challenging games quicker than the subjects in the tidy room.

 

These findings implicate that, perhaps, tidiness can restrain creativity to some extent while the messy environment can encourage creativity. While staying clean certainly has its benefits, keeping a clean workspace might be too ordinary to let our imagination flow. 

So take pride in your disorganised desk, knowing that research says you’re a lot more creative than your tidy friends.

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