Do you tend to keep your desk tidy at work or home, or is it constantly strewn with papers? The answer could say a lot about your personality and even your health, according to new research by psychologists with the University of Minnesota.
In a series of studies detailed in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, U of M researchers said working at a clean and tidy desk may promote healthy eating, generosity, and conventionality. But the researchers also found that a messy desk confers its own benefits, promoting creative thinking and stimulating new ideas.
"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 psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs, who helped conduct the study. "We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting."
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The findings are based on several experiments, involving participants who 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 — cluttered with papers and office supplies.
Afterward, the participants were given the opportunity to donate to a charity and offered a chocolate bar or an apple. The results showed the volunteers who were working at a clean desk donated more of their own money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar than those in a messy room.
But in another experiment, during which participants were asked to come up with new uses for ping pong balls, those working in a messy room generated far more interesting and creative ideas for new uses as their clean-room counterparts, when evaluated by an impartial judge.
"Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of: Creativity," said Vohs.
When participants were given a choice between a new product and an established one, those in the messy room were more likely to choose the novel one — a signal that being in a disorderly environment stimulates a release from conventionality.
"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."
The researchers are now investigating 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.
"We are all exposed to various kinds of settings, such as in our office space, our homes, our cars, even on the Internet," Vohs noted. "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."
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