Psychology Masala

The creative answer

Orderly, Disorderly Environments and Creativity

Environment effects on behavior

Many of my students, particularly the more friendly ones, express surprise when they see my obviously messy office and offer to help arrange my office, but I have always resisted their help.  Interestingly, whenever I did take steps to organize my mess of mostly papers located on 3 desks, 1 table, and, in and on top of 3 bookcases and 4 filing cabinets, I have had difficulty finding what I looked for.  So, I was happy to come across in this month’s Monitor on Psychology a report on a study by Vohs, Redden, and Rahinel (2013), which found that participants assigned to a disorderly environment produced more creative solutions than those assigned to a neat and tidy environment.  Additionally, they found participants assigned to an orderly environment were more likely to (a) choose healthy snacks, (b) donate more money, and (c) prefer the health-boost option labeled as “classic” as opposed to “new,” but participants in the disorderly environment were more likely to prefer the “new” option.

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Vohs et al.’s fascinating findings are consistent with the notion that environmental cues play an important role in determining behavior. They noted the famous broken-windows theory (Wilson & Kelling, 1982) that an unrepaired broken window can lead to a domino effect of negative consequences. Vohs et al.’s findings are remindful of the film “White Lotus Rising” by Jean and Jason Boulware.  This award winning film (2013 American Psychological Association Film Festival Award “Best Documentary Short”) documents the successful efforts of the artist and peace activist Indira Freitas Johnson’s in curbing violence by placing emerging Buddha sculptures in Chicago’s low-income high crime neighborhoods. 

According to Vohs et al., environmental cues “activate different mind-sets, which in turn benefit different outcomes” (p. 1861). An orderly environment implies conventional or conforming attitudes; whereas a disorderly environment implies “breaking with convention” (p. 1862). Assuming that creativity often requires unconventional thinking, a disorderly environment would work better to promote divergent thinking and greater risk-taking.  Citing Abrahamson and Freedman (2007), Vohs et al. noted that many notably creative individuals cultivate messy environments to facilitate their creative efforts. They also noted Einstein’s famous remark: “‘If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk a sign?’ (e.g., www.goodreads.com)” (p. 1866).

The study findings raised several questions in my mind: Are there people in real life who are messy, but not creative? Are there people in real life who are neat and tidy, but highly creative?  Do messy individuals have high tolerance for differences in thinking and are less concerned about whether someone fits into their expectations, possibly giving them the freedom to differ from others and conventionally set ways? Is it possible that habitually messy persons become less creative over time in the same environment and need to move temporarily to a tidy environment to rejuvenate their creativity? Since creativity requires not only the generation of novel ideas (divergent thinking), but bringing ideas into fruition through logical or convergent thinking, is it possible that idea generation is more fruitful in untidy environments, but bringing them to a logical development and conclusion is better accomplished in tidy environments? Or, is it that a mere change from one work environment to another might reboot one’s creativity?

Creativity is an amazing cognitive process that can baffle even the most creative individuals as to how they came up with some of their significant ideas. An acclaimed Indian Poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) noted:

                 “These ideas come to me from the unknown

                 O Ghalib, the sound produced by the scratching of my pen

                  Is the voice an angel.”

                                          (From Dar, 2013, p. 2)

More than likely, there is no one way to be creative and possibly people have to find what works for them to be creative on a regular basis. I suspect that as novelty of ideas is basic to creative process, a change of one’s environment, messy or tidy, might be helpful to get away from habitual ways of thinking.  

In any case, I hope the study findings will help boost my image to visitors to my office as some one who might be sometimes creative. The Einstein poster, with his disheveled hair, on the door of my messy office, hopefully, presents additional cues to activate a strong creative mind-set, especially in my students who come to discuss their research ideas with me. However, I hope that my office messiness does not produce a mind-set to crave unhealthy snacks or to engage in unruly behavior in my visitors or me.  Perhaps I need to place a Buddha’s statue on one of my desks to project peacefulness cues to reduce the likelihood of this latter behavior.

References

Abrahamson, E., & Freedman, D. H. (2007).  A perfect mess: The hidden benefits of disorder. New York, NY: Little Brown.

Dar, B. A.  (2013). Mirza Ghalib’s poetry, art, and philosophy.  Indian Streams Research Journal, 3(4), 1-4.

Vohs, K. D., Redden, J. P. & Rahinel, R. (2013). Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity. Psychological Science, 24, 1860-1867, DOI: 10.1177/0956797613480186

 Wilson, J. Q. & Kelling, G. L. & (1992, March). Broken windows. The police and neighborhood safety.  The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 29-36, 38.

V. Krishna Kumar, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

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