Study: Messy work space sparks creativity

New research finds that a disorderly environment can be inspiring, but that clutter isn't without its downsides

Published August 28, 2013 12:10PM (EDT)

This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific Standard In recent years, researchers have identified many ways to spark creativity, from studying abroad to dimming the lights. A newly published study reveals yet another method, one many of us have already implemented without realizing its benefits.

It finds that people come up with more creative ideas if they’re sitting in a messy room.

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” a team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota’s Kathleen Vohs writes in the journal Psychological Science. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

Vohs and her colleagues describe three experiments that provide evidence that a room’s orderliness (or lack thereof) can influence people’s mindset and behavior. One featured 48 American university students, who were instructed to come up with up to 10 unconventional uses for ping-pong balls.

Each did so while sitting alone in a small room. For half of the participants, the room was arranged in a neat, organized manner; for the others, it was messed up, with papers strewn about on a large table (along with a few on the floor).

Two assistants rated each idea on a one-to-three scale (from not at all creative to very creative). After adding the scores, the researchers found that those who worked in the messy room were more creative overall, and came up with more highly creative ideas, than those who performed the same task in the neat room. On average, those working in the pristine environment came up with as many suggestions as those in the messy one; their ideas just weren’t as innovative.

“Being creative is aided by breaking away from tradition, order and convention,” Vohs and her colleagues conclude, “and a disorderly environment seems to help people do just that.”

Ah, but a neatly arranged room can inspire a different type of positive behavior. In another experiment, 34 Dutch students spent 10 minutes filling out a form while sitting in either a neatly arranged small room or an identical room that had papers and furniture scattered about. Afterward, they were asked to donate to a charity and given a choice of an apple or chocolate bar as a thank-you gift.

“Participants who completed the study in the orderly room donated more than twice as much as those who completed the study in the disorderly room,” the researchers report. In addition, they chose the healthy apple over the unhealthy candy bar more often than those who were emerging from the messy space.

Vohs notes that those results confirm prior research that has found people in a neat environment tend to act in more generous and thoughtful ways. That notion is the basis of the well-known broken windows theory, which suggests vandalism can signal an atmosphere of lawbreaking and permissiveness and lead to an increase in more serious crimes.

However, they add, this is the first evidence that disarray can also stimulate something quite valuable.

“Orderly environments promote more convention and healthy choices, which could improve life by helping people follow social norms and boosting well-being,” they write. “Disorderly environments stimulate creativity, which has widespread importance for culture, business and the arts.”

Cleanliness may indeed be next to godliness, but clutter breeds creativity.

By Tom Jacobs

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Broken Windows Theory Minnesota Pacific Standard Psychological Science Psychology