Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Messy Desk, Messy Mind?

Thriller Guy works in a basement. There are no widows to speak of; the only indication of daylight is a small window in a door at the far end of the room.  That’s the way TG likes it. TG once had a very rich wife who bought a many-roomed house and TG had a fabulous workroom that looked out at the Bitterroot Mountains and the beautiful big sky of Montana. That lasted about three weeks before TG moved his “office” down into the basement next to a giant furnace. No windows.

Ahhh, nothing to do but work.

Not really TG's desk.
So down in the present basement… TG’s office (that’s what we call it in case the IRS is listening) is a couple of tables nailed together with his iMac, a printer and all manner of junk atop. Books, pens and pencils, various sticky notes, books to be reviewed, books recently reviewed, electrical fuses, wires, many wires, old CDs that may or may not contain anything useful, piles of recipes downloaded off the Interweb, research stuff and a ton of other crap. It’s a real mess. Every time TG starts a new book, he begins by cleaning up the desk. That means it gets cleaned up every couple of years. Sometimes TG begins to feel a little bad about this.

But hark! TG hears the voice of science, saying…

Working at a messy desk may actually help you think more creatively!

Much of the rest of this blog is stolen verbatim from the journal Psychological Science.

Scientists found that being surrounded by clutter can promote creative thinking and stimulate new ideas. In contrast, working at a clean and prim desk may promote healthy eating, generosity and conventionality. The new study was conducted by psychological scientist Professor Kathleen Vohs and fellow researchers at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. They mapped the behavior of people working in a messy room and clean room with a series of experiments.

Participants in the study were given a choice between a new product and an established one. Those in the messy room were more likely to prefer the novel one - a signal that being in a disorderly environment prompts a release from conventionality. Professor Vohs said: "Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of - creativity. Previous research has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things, such as not engaging in crime, litter and showing more generosity. We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting."

In the first of several experiments, participants were asked to fill out questionnaires in an office. Some completed the task in a clean and orderly office, while others did so in an unkempt one where papers were strewn about and office supplies were cluttered. Afterwards, the participants had the opportunity to donate to charity and were allowed to take a snack of chocolate or an apple on their way out.

Being in a clean room encouraged people to do what was expected of them as they donated more of their own money to charity. They were also more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar. However, messiness had its virtues as well. In an alternative experiment, participants were asked to come up with new uses for Ping-Pong balls. Overall, participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses as their clean-room counterparts, but their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges. (TG has to admit that he can’t think of any clever uses for Ping-Pong balls other than playing Ping-Pong and choosing winning lottery numbers.)

Professor Vohs said: "Just making that environment tidy or unkempt made a massive difference in people's behavior."

The researchers are continuing to investigate whether these effects might even transfer to the Internet. Preliminary findings suggest that the tidiness of a webpage predicts the same kind of behavior. Coupled with the findings published, this is especially intriguing because of their broad relevance. Professor Vohs said: "We are all exposed to various kinds of settings, such as in our office space, our homes, our cars, even on the Internet. Whether you have control over the tidiness of the environment or not, you are exposed to it and our research shows it can affect you."

So there you go. Just try to write a novel at a clean desk.


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