Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Sian Beilock Ph.D.


Cluttered or Orderly? Our Surroundings Shape Our Thinking

Physical disorder prompts creative thinking

Posted Aug 14, 2013

We have all heard the phrase “a cluttered desk, a cluttered mind.” Indeed, as Martha Stewart, the magazine Real Simple, and thousands of self-help books will tell you, being neat and tidy leads to improved mental health, life satisfaction, and better thinking.

But, it is true? Does being in an orderly environment – at work or at home – improve our lives? It turns out that it depends on what we are trying to do. In a nut shell, orderly environments prompt us to stick to valued social norms, like being generous or eating healthy (think grabbing that apple rather than the tempting candy bar). And, it’s easy to see how such choices might improve our well-being. However, disorderly environments have their perks too. For instance, disorder promotes a creative mindset.

In a paper published this month in the journal Psychological Science, psychologist Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues set out to test exactly how organized versus disorganized environments alter our thinking and behavior. So, they ran a simple test. They paid volunteers to fill out a series of questionnaires in either an orderly workspace or a disorderly one – the former neat and tidy, the latter with papers strewn everywhere. While in the workspace, the volunteers learned that the department in which the study they were taking part in was being conducted, was involved in a charity that gave books and toys to children in need. The question was, did the volunteers wish to donate to the charity? Sure enough, people in the clean environment were more generous in their donations. Those folks in the clean and tidy room were also more likely to opt for an apple over a candy bar when given as a parting gift for their study participation.

But, the story isn’t so simple as order is good and disorder is bad. In another study, Vohs and her research team had people sit in either a disorderly or orderly room while they performed a task designed to tap creativity. People were asked to imagine that a company wanted to create a new use for the Ping-Pong balls it manufactured. Folks had to come up with alternate uses for the Ping-Pong ball. People sitting in the disorderly room not only generated more uses for the Ping-Pong balls than those in the orderly room, the uses the disorderly room inhabitants generated tended to be more creative. The idea is that a disorganized environment inspires us to breaking away from order and convention – to think outside the box.

The take home? It’s not that disorderly environments are bad or encourage deviant behavior. An organized physical environment may lead people towards tradition and convention, promoting healthy choices and generous behavior. But, when your aim is to think outside the box and to depart from the norm, it just might help to have a messy desk. The key is to know how to harness your environment to think better.

For more on creating environments that help you perform at your best, check out my book “Choke

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Vohs, K. et al. (2013). Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity. Psychological Science.

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