Some 82 percent of the students in the orderly room contributed money, compared to only 47 percent in the disorderly room.
As they left the room, they were offered a treat, either an apple or a piece of candy. Participants from the orderly room were more than three times as likely to take the apple. Moral: orderliness brought out a need do the right thing.
In a second experiment, participants were told to come up with new uses for ping-pong balls to help a manufacturer.
"Participants in the disorderly room generated more highly creative ideas than did participants in the orderly room," the study said.
In the final experiment, 188 American adults were asked to pick from a list of new options to be added to a restaurant's menu. Participants from the orderly room were far more likely to pick a healthy option than were participants from a disorderly room.
The researchers described the findings as "robust," meaning there was little question that the environment directly influenced the behavior of the participants.
"Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights," the researchers concluded. "Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe."
Something good can come from either setting, Vohs said. A tidy workplace may help people walk a straight line. A messy desk may help them figure out a new way to keep from walking at all.
Years ago I was fortunate to spend three days with Linus Pauling, including one day at his estate on California's Big Sur coastline, which he bought with the winnings from his second Nobel Prize. I was eager to see the living room in his home, because I had read that he wrote many of his scores of research papers while standing at a grand piano.
But when I entered the room, I had trouble even finding the piano. Files and research notes were stacked from floor to ceiling around the entire room. I finally spotted one leg of the piano, which was also covered with papers.
Only one corner of the piano had enough vacant space for the old chemist to stand and share his wisdom.
Apparently, other things were more important to him than tidiness.