Aug. 11, 2013 -- Here's a toast to the slob in the office, the gal with so much junk on her desk she can't find her telephone. All that clutter may be part of the reason she is so creative.
For years, we've been told that piles of personal rubbish have got to be a liability. Now there's a flip side to that theorem.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota decided to take a look at a long-established principle of human honesty and productivity -- keep your work area clean and you will be more likely to work your tail off, stay honest, be generous with your coworkers, and on and on.
Cleanliness, after all, is next to godliness.
"We were thinking about doing a paper showing how being tidy makes people kind of do the right thing," psychologist Kathleen Vohs, lead author of a study in the journal Psychological Science, said in a telephone interview. "And then we started challenging ourselves. Is there anything that goes along with a messy environment that could be good?"
So Vohs and her co-workers conducted a series of experiments in Holland and the United States to see if there's an up-side to untidiness. The finding, she said, surprised even the researchers.
A messy work environment, the research suggested, can bring out a person's creativity and lead to the birth of bold, new ideas. In other words, a less- than-perfect work environment can make a person more likely to think out of the box, or at least above the horizon of those neat people in the office.
That doesn't mean you can set a nitwit in front of a cluttered desk and end up with another Einstein, who is said to have muttered these immortal words: "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?"
Numerous historic photos of Einstein's office show he was no neat freak.
No amount of clutter is going to make an empty brain creative, but this research indicates that a little clutter may bring out the freshest and most creative side of you.
"The environment doesn't create something that isn't already there," Vohs said. "To the extent that you are creative, it pulls it out of you."
Not a lot of researchers have taken up the banner of messy desks, so there's not much to compare this work with, but the research involved a large number of participants, both young and old, and it led to these conclusions:
Sociology's "broken windows theory" is not entirely accurate. According to Vohs' study, that theory "posits that minor signs of disorder can cause much bigger consequences, such as delinquency and criminality." But her research suggested a less-pristine environment can leave persons free to turn to creativity instead of crime.
"Orderly environments would encourage adherence to social convention and overall conservatism, whereas disorderly environments would encourage people to seek novelty and unconventional routes."
"Our findings imply that varying the environment can be an effective way to shape behavior."
Those findings resulted from three experiments in which participants were assigned tasks while seated in a neat, orderly office, or in an office that was identical in every way except it was filled with clutter, such as papers on the floor and stacks of files on the desk.
Thirty-four Dutch students were tested to see if the orderliness of the room had any effect on their generosity and sense of needing to do the right thing. At the end of the experiment, for example, the students were asked to contribute to a worthy cause.
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.