Messy Desks Encourage Creative Thinking

Researchers have discovered that messy desks encourage creative thinking while clean desks encourage socially-responsible decision making.

| March/April 2014

Messy Desks Encourage Creative Thinking

We’ve been trained to believe that a de-cluttered desk and office are the quickest routes to becoming better thinkers and more efficient workers. And while that may provide the ideal environment for getting work done, it may not be the best environment for coming up with new ideas, so says Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. 

As Lea Winerman reports in Monitor on Psychology (Oct. 2013), Vohs and her team conducted three experiments involving a tidy workspace and messy workspace, and asked participants to complete a variety of tasks and make decisions in those rooms. When asked if they were interested in donating money to charity, those tested in the tidy workspace proved to be much more charitable (81 percent) than those in the messy workspace (47 percent). The tidy room participants also made healthier decisions (67 percent chose an apple over chocolate) compared to the messy-room participants (only 20 percent chose the apple).

But while neatness seems to correlate with making socially-responsible decisions, it appears that messiness leads to higher levels of creative and innovative thinking. Vohs and her team conducted another test asking participants to come up with creative uses for a ping-pong ball. While those in the tidy rooms and messy rooms both came up with extensive lists, an independent assessment determined that the ideas coming from the messy room were far more creative. A separate test involving terminology on a menu also showed that terms such as “classic” were more appealing to those in the tidy rooms while “new” resonated with those in the messy rooms, suggesting to researchers that the messy workspaces correlate to innovative thinking. 

While those with perpetually messy desks have embraced Vohs’ findings, which were first published in the September issue of Psychological Science, the results suggest that both tidy workspaces and messy workspaces have their place, depending on what exactly you’re hoping to accomplish.