Menus Subscribe Search
messy-desk

(PHOTO: GEMENACOM/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Can a Messy Desk Make You More Creative?

• August 27, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: GEMENACOM/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research finds working in a disorderly environment can lead to greater creativity—but that clutter isn’t without its downsides.

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.”

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

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.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.