There seem to be two types of people in the world: those who keep their desks neat and those who don’t. Now, new research shows that whether your desk is messy or tidy may influence how you think.
In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that working at a clean and tidy desk promotes socially acceptable behaviors, like generosity and healthy eating, whereas working at a sloppy desk promotes out-of the-box thinking and an openness to new ideas.
While previous research has indicated that different personality types lean towards order and disorder, researcher Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota wanted to see if different types of work environments would promote different behaviors, regardless of personality type. Specifically, researchers wanted to examine whether order encouraged people to act in a more socially acceptable, conventional way - or if disorderly environments would encourage people to seek novelty and display unconventional behavior.
In the first experiment, participants were asked to fill out questionnaires, unrelated to the topic of the study, in one of two offices. One office was clutter free, with a perfectly clean and bare desk, nothing on the walls and no other furniture in the room. The other office had two desks, both heaped with various piles of paper, a messy bulletin board and a filing cabinet. After the participants filled out the questionnaire, they were presented with the opportunity to donate to a charity and they were allowed to take a snack of chocolate or an apple on their way out.
As the researchers predicted, those in the tidy room donated more than twice as much of their money to charity than those in the messy room. Eighty-two percent of those in the neat room donated some money, versus 47 percent of those in the disorderly room. People in the tidy room were also more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar, compared to those those in the messy room. Researchers believed the clean room encouraged people to do what was socially expected of them, Vohs said.
In a second experiment, the researchers sought to test creativity. Participants were asked to think up as many as 10 new uses for ping pong balls.
Those in the messy room came up with the same number of ideas as their clean-room counterparts. But the ideas of the people in the messy room were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges.
"Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries and societies want more of: creativity," Vohs said.
The researchers also found that when participants were given a choice between a new product and an established one, those in the messy room were more likely to prefer the new one while participants in the tidy room preferred the established product.
"Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights," said Vohs. "Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe."
So how does this research apply to the workplace?
“Companies may want to tailor the environment for the behaviors they want,” said Joseph Redden, a co-author of the study.
A bank, for instance, may want loan officers to be very careful and follow the rules, and have them work in very neat and organized offices. However, an ad agency might want some controlled chaos and free space to encourage freer thinking.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.