Illustration by Ben Wiseman
What has been less clear is whether neat environments can produce good habits even in those who aren’t necessarily innately conscientious. To find out, researchers at the University of Minnesota conducted a series of experiments, the results of which were published online last month in Psychological Science. In the first experiment, they randomly assigned a group of college-age students to spend time in adjacent office spaces, one of which was exquisitely neat, the other wildly cluttered with papers and other work-related detritus. The students spent their time filling out questionnaires unrelated to the study. After 10 minutes, they were told they could leave and were offered an apple or a chocolate bar as they exited. Those students who sat in the orderly office were twice as likely to choose the apple than those who sat amid the mess.
A second experiment, however, found that working in chaos has its advantages, too. In this one, college students were placed in a messy or a neat office and asked to dream up new uses for Ping-Pong balls. Those in messy spaces generated ideas that were significantly more creative, according to two independent judges, than those plugging away in offices where stacks of papers and other objects were neatly aligned.
The results were something of a surprise, says Kathleen D. Vohs, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota and the leader of the study. Few previous studies found much virtue in disarray. The broken-windows theory, proposed decades ago, posits that even slight disorder and neglect can encourage nonchalance, poor discipline and nihilism. Chaos begets chaos.
But in the study by Dr. Vohs, disordered offices encouraged originality and a search for novelty. In the final portion of the study, adults were given the choice of adding a health “boost” to their lunchtime smoothie that was labeled either “new” or “classic.” The volunteers in the messy space were far more likely to choose the new one; those in the tidy office generally opted for the classic version.
“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” Dr. Vohs and her co-authors conclude in the study, “which can produce fresh insights.”
The implications of these findings are also practical. “My advice would be, if you need to think outside the box” for a future project, Dr. Vohs says, then let the clutter rise and unfetter your imagination. But if your primary goal is to eat well or to go to the gym, pick up around your office first. By doing this, the naturally messy can acquire some of the discipline of the conscientious.