Your Messy Room Might be the Sign of a Brilliant Mind

published Apr 20, 2015
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(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Albert Einstein once famously asked. Conventional wisdom holds that it’s easier to work, and to create, in a space that’s neat and tidy — but what if the opposite were true?

A recent study by psychologist Kathleen Vohs, at the University of Minnesota, tested the effects of different kinds of working environments on human behavior. In the first part of the study, participants were asked to fill out some questionnaires. Some participants worked in a neat office, while others worked in a messy office. (According to the Association of Psychological Science, in the messy office “papers were strewn about, and office supplies were cluttered here and there.” Which doesn’t sound nearly as bad as some offices I’ve seen, but whatever.)

After completing the questionnaires, participants were given the opportunity to donate to a charity — and offered the choice of an apple or a chocolate bar as a snack on the way out. 82 percent of the tidy room folks chose to give money, as opposed to 47 percent of the messy roomers. And 67 of the neat-room participants made the healthier choice of the apple, whereas only 20 percent of those working in the messy room were able to avoid the temptation of the chocolate.

So, score one for neatness.

But in a different part of the study, participants, some working in neat rooms and some working in messy rooms, were asked to come up with alternative uses for ping pong balls. Participants in both rooms came up with equal numbers of ideas, on average, but those of the participants in the messy room were evaluated by impartial judges as being more interesting and creative.

And in yet another part of the study, when participants who had been working in the neat and messy rooms were given a choice between an established product and a new one, those in the messy room were more likely to pick the new one.

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

So whoever said that “cleanliness is next to godliness” was sort of right — hanging out in super-neat spaces may actually make you a kinder, and healthier, human being. But if you want to write the great American novel, or dream up an idea for a brilliant startup, or build a better mousetrap… better keep your desk cluttered.

You can read more about this study at the Association for Psychological Science.