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Creative Mess, Creative Clutter

Perhaps there's hope and promise in a messy workspace.

Well, it happened again. One of my favorite students, a senior, dropped by yesterday afternoon to tell me that he has received a job offer of his dreams. I was about to kvell about his good fortune and his abilities, when he looked (really, gaped) at my desk, specifically my “peninsula,” as the office catalogs refer to it. He grinned, shook his head, and said something about “not much has changed here since the spring, huh?”

No, not so much. I am knee deep in finishing some writing projects up (three books) and preparing to start some others. Would I rather work on the work or would I rather clean my desk and, well, the floor under my bookshelves (filled with files and papers and books) and also, well, the shelves themselves. My books need to put back in the places where they belong (I have a rather loose organizational system where books on, say, social psychology stay together, as do methods books, health psychology books, and so on). Dewey-decimal or Library of Congress system I am not—but I have a sense of where things are or should be. But—and this is a big and important but—I take comfort in the fact that I actually use most of my books. They are not dusty props. I consult them all the time for writing, class prep, and sometimes (gasp) just for fun.

I sheepishly smiled at my student and muttered something like, “Yeah, I know, it is cluttered, but I will get to it—once I finish up some other things.” His look at this comment was one of amusement, not, I hope, pity. In my heart I am an obsessive neat freak but my workplace reality, alas, is less tidy. And I had hoped to clean my office up (well, I actually did a little) over the summer, but the projects called.

But, where there’s love—or clutter, anyway—there’s hope. Thank goodness for the University of Minnesota’s Kathleen Vohs, one of this generations most prolific and clever social psychologists. Vohs and her colleagues have tackled the meaning underlying the pristine, clean, and neat office versus the disarrayed, cluttered, messy office problem. Vohs and her co-authors speculated that messiness might serve a purpose. Being tidy, for example, is associated with maintaining society’s standards (e.g., making a good impression) as well as conventionality. Perhaps the presence of messiness in someone’s space actually means the individual is open to seeking “new directions” or even is creative.

In one study, participants arrived individually to a psychology lab study and then were placed in either a messy room (books and papers were strewn about with abandon) or a tidy one (books and papers were stacked neatly). The participants were asked to imagine that a Ping Pong ball factory wanted to identify new uses for its wares, so they were invited to write down as many possible ideas as they could within a given time frame. Afterwards, a panel of independent judges rated how creative each of the participants’ suggestions turned out to be.

Participants in both tidy and messy rooms generated about the same number of ideas, which Vohs believes indicates they exerted about equal effort. Yet further analysis revealed that the participants in the messy room suggested more creative ideas for the Ping Pong balls (on average their suggestions were 28% more creative) than those developed by the participants in the tidy rooms. Even more striking, the messy room people had five times (!!!) as many ideas deemed by judges to be “highly creative” than those in the tidy room. Moreover, the effect has been replicated and extended by other researchers at other universities examining how messy environments lead to quicker solutions to brainteasers and the production of creative drawings than research participants working in tidy surroundings.

Teachers of psychology, students of psychology, take note! That disordered or chaotic workspace may be enhancing your creativity. Conversely, that Zen-like, minimalist hideaway may be undermining your originality and inventiveness.

So, in a way, these results validate my sloth but in a good way. I do wonder if Dr. Voh’s office is tidy—I guess I should email her but perhaps it’s best not to know . . . in the mean time, I will share these surprising results with my students and take solace in them. I should clean my office a bit, but perhaps I should avoid the glacial, minimalist look of the Spartan workspace or risk being less creative in my thinking, writing, and teaching.

More from Dana S. Dunn Ph.D.
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