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

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

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