Can a Messy Desk Make You More Creative?

One of my favorite adages is "An uncluttered desk is the sign of an uncluttered mind." It appears to be true that a messy desk fosters creativity. Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota cites three experiments in which a neat or messy setting influenced a person's thinking process. In one experiment, 48 subjects were placed in either a neat or a messy room, and told to come up with creative uses for ping pong balls.

Two assistants rated each idea on a one-to-three scale (from not at all creative to very creative). After adding the scores, the researchers found that those who worked in the messy room were more creative overall, and came up with more highly creative ideas, than those who performed the same task in the neat room. On average, those working in the pristine environment came up with as many suggestions as those in the messy one; their ideas just weren’t as innovative.

“Being creative is aided by breaking away from tradition, order and convention,” Vohs and her colleagues conclude, “and a disorderly environment seems to help people do just that.”

An interesting observation here is that the subjects did not select whether their experimental environment was neat or messy, so a person's natural messiness or creativity did not come into play. And a neat desk has its advantages, too. Vohs tells us of other experiments in which people working in a neater environment tended to be more generous and to select more nutritious foods afterward. Link

(Image credit: Flickr user Ali West)


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Interesting. When I taught school, I joked that the only times the top of my desk saw daylight were at the first and last days of the school year. In spite of the mess, I was always able to tell if someone was messing with my mess.
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I wonder if part of that creativity response might be due to the visual stimulus of clutter as randomly occurring shapes and angles, as opposed to the expected squared-off look of a tidy office.
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Yes, clean folks never seem to realize that the clutter will expand to fill any space available. I'm always looking for a smaller desk with less flat space so I have less room to clutter up.
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