MIND
August 21, 2013

What Your Desk Says about You

Is your desk pin neat or pretty chaotic? Disorderly environments offer advantages. Quick, kids, tell your parents!

What does your desk say about you? And what is it doing to you? According to a new study from the University of Minnesota, your workspace probably affects you and reflects you more than you'd expect.

Working at a clean desk seems to promote generosity, conventionality and healthy eating habits, while working at a messy desk seems to promote creativity.

If only you'd known this back when your parents insisted that you clean your room.

Other studies have found that a clean setting leads people to do good things: obey the law, not litter and show more generosity. But disorder is common enough in both in nature and culture that the researchers thought it must offer some advantages.

So they performed three experiments to test how order and disorder affect people:

In the first experiment, people filled out questionnaires. Some did this in a clean and orderly office, while others were given one with papers and office supplies strewn about haphazardly. After completing their questionnaires, participants were offered either chocolate or an apple as a snack and were also asked to donate to a charity.

Being in a clean office seemed to encourage people to do what was expected of them. They donated more of their own money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar compared to people in the messy office.

The virtues of messiness came out in the second experiment in which people were asked to come up with ideas for new uses for ping pong balls. Those in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses as those in the tidy room, but their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges. Being in a messy room seemed to lead to greater creativity and innovation.

If only you'd known this back when your parents insisted that you clean your room.

The final experiment tested the effect of room decor on people's preferences. When given a choice between a new product and an established one, those in the messy room were more likely to want the new one, a sign that being in a disorderly environment encourages people to step away from convention. People in the tidy room preferred the established product.

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights, ”said lead researcher Kathleen Vohs in a statement. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

The physical location of the room didn't seem to matter. Six different rooms were used in the experiments; and what affected people's behavior wasn't location, it was whether the room was tidy or unkempt.

The researchers think that these results also apply to the virtual world of the Internet and have done preliminary studies on the tidiness of webpages suggesting that this is so.

There's no word on the effect of neatness in the home or car.

The study is published online in Psychological Science.
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