A messy desk encourages a creative mind, study finds

Are you sick of home decorating shows and lifestyle magazines telling you to de-clutter your life? Would you rather just learn to live with your overflowing desk and messy shelves? If you want to get your creative juices flowing, that might actually be the best choice, according to new research.

In a study in the September issue of Psychological Science[1], Kathleen Vohs, PhD, of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, found that working in a tidy room encourages people to do socially responsible, normatively “good” things like eat healthfully and give to charity. But working in a messy room seems to help them try new things and come up with creative ideas.

Vohs conducted three experiments. In the first, 34 participants spent a few minutes filling out questionnaires — half worked in a tidy room, while the other half worked in a room with books and papers strewn about. Afterward, Vohs and her colleagues asked the participants to voluntarily contribute to a charity, then offered them a choice of an apple or candy bar on the way out. The researchers found that 82 percent of the participants in the neat room donated money, versus 47 percent in the messy room. Also, 67 percent of the neat-room participants chose the apple over the chocolate, while only 20 percent of the messy-room participants made the healthy choice. So, score a win for neatness.

But in the next experiment, the researchers asked 48 participants to come up with novel uses for a pingpong ball. Again, half the participants worked in a messy room and half in a neat room. The participants thought up the same number of ideas, but a panel of independent raters rated the messy-room participants’ ideas as significantly more creative.

Finally, Vohs and her colleagues told 188 participants that they were studying menu preferences for a nearby snack bar. The researchers asked the participants — again, half in a neat room and half in a messy room — to choose a health, wellness or vitamin “boost” for a smoothie. Some of the boosts were labeled “new” and others “classic.” The researchers found that people in the neat room were more likely to choose the health boost labeled “classic,” and people in the messy room were more likely to choose the health boost labeled “new.”

The research has received a lot of media attention, and Vohs thinks she knows why: “I think it makes people feel vindicated,” she says. “There’s a multibillion dollar industry to help people de-clutter their lives. Relationship partners, employers, everyone wants you to be neat … but there may be times being messy is good, too. I think messy people feel vindicated big time.”

— Lea Winerman


  1. ^ Psychological Science (www.psychologicalscience.org)

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