Why being messy can be a positive trait, according to researchers

Einstein wasn't ashamed and neither should you be, say experts 

Kashmira Gander
Tuesday 15 December 2015 17:09

As the festive seasons gets into full swing the pressure to have a tidy home to welcome friends and family into is palpable.

From pleas from our parents to tidy our rooms in our teen years to the myriad life hack articles that dot the internet, being neat is widely view as a positive trait and a sign of being in control.

But studies show that there is not need to be ashamed about being messy - as Albert Einstein famously quipped: “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

While working at a neat, tidy desk may make a person more likely to eat healthily and be more generous, a messier desk and promote creativity and help give birth to ideas, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota.

Kathleen Vohs who lead the study told Science Daily that the team found “really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting.”

As part of the study published in the journal ‘Psychological Science’, researchers asked participants to complete questionnaires in either a clean or untidy office littered with paper and stationery.

Participants were then asked to donate to charity, then to choose between eating an apple or a piece of chocolate on the way out.

Scientists found that those who were in the tidy room donated more money and opted for the apple.

However, participants exposed to the messy setting in a separate test and asked to invent new uses for ping-pong balls came up with more creative and interesting ideas, according to impartial judges.

Professor Vos reasoned that orderly environments "encourage convention and playing it safe", while people are subconsciously encouraged to think creativly in a messier setting.

A similar study using cluttered desks and shop fronts by researchers at the University of Groningen, Germany, made similar conclusions.

“Messy desks may not be as detrimental as they appear to be, as the problem-solving approaches they seem to cause can boost work efficiency or enhance employees’ creativity in problem solving,” the authors noted in their journal article, The Daily Mail reported at the time.

And as Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, authors of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder argue: "Mess isn’t necessarily the absence of order. A messy desk can be a highly effective prioritizing and accessing system."

Instead, they surmise that the "more important, urgent" work lurks at the top of the clutter, while the "safely ignorable stuff" falls to the bottom: "which makes perfect sense."

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