Got a messy desk? Don't worry. It likely just means you're creative and full of new ideas.
A clean desk, by contrast, suggests generosity and conventionality. Either way, there's room for both kinds of desks in most offices, new research shows.
New research finds that workers with desks in varying states of organization and cleanliness may have various skills to offer employers and fellow workers.
"Prior work has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things: Not engage in crime, not litter, and show more generosity," said Kathleen Vohs, a University of Minnesota psychological scientist who conducted the research with fellow researchers. "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 some questionnaires in an office. Some completed the task in a clean and orderly office, while others did so in an unkempt one — papers were strewn about, and office supplies cluttered the area.
Afterward, the participants 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.
Being in a clean room seemed to encourage people to do what was expected of them, Vohs said. Compared with participants in the messy room, participants donated more of their own money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar.
But the researchers hypothesized that messiness might have its virtues as well. In another experiment, participants were asked to come up with new uses for pingpong balls.
Overall, participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses for the balls as their clean-room counterparts did. But their ideas 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 novel one — a signal that being in a disorderly environment stimulates a release from conventionality — whereas participants in a tidy room preferred the established product over the new one.
"Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights," Vohs said. "Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe."
Surprisingly, the specific physical location didn't seem to matter.
"We used six different locations in our paper — the specifics of the rooms were not important. Just making that environment tidy or unkempt made a whopping difference in people's behavior," Vohs said.
The researchers are continuing to investigate whether these effects might even transfer to a virtual environment: the Internet. Preliminary findings suggest that the tidiness of a webpage predicts the same kind of behaviors.
These preliminary data, coupled with the findings, are especially intriguing because of their broad relevance.
"We are all exposed to various kinds of settings, such as in our office space, our homes, our cars, even on the Internet," Vohs said. "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."
The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
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