Messy Desks and Creativity: Mayhem in the Media

Don't clean up those piles of papers just yet. Shove aside those Zappos boxes and sit down.

A messy desk might change your life or at least inspire a novel thought or two. At least when it comes to ping pong balls.

A series of new studies out of the University of Minnesota show a couple perks of clutter, impressive ones like creativity and a preference for innovation or novelty. After sitting for a spell in either untidy or neat offices, subjects were asked to list some ways to use ping pong balls. In a finding sure to please semi-hoarders from here, ahem, to my brother's back seat, students assigned to the messy offices came up with more creative uses.

True, this particular task didn't exactly solve global warming or infant mortality, but the virtues of a disheveled life don't get much praise. They certainly haven't gotten their own cable show yet and as far as I know there is no market for professional Personal Un-Organizers and sadly no licensed accreditation process.

So slobs of the world, this is your moment. Lift your coffee mugs, if you can find one, and toast the fifteen minutes of limelight for clutter and chaos!

Before you or I slip into unbridled disorderliness, be warned. Your health may be adversely affected by too much mishmash and mayhem. In the above studies, students in the messy offices were less likely to choose apples and other healthy snacks. If there'd been a treadmill in the room they would have ignored it. Oh and they were less likely to donate money too.

Now I'm not sure what this means for chaotic, overblown fundraisers with discarded drinks, half-eaten  buffets and tons of dirty silverware (ask for money after the dessert plates have been cleared!) but psychologists like to talk about healthy, neat and orderly/polite behavior as a sign of conscientiousness and no surprise, it's been linked to all sorts of positive outcomes in life. In fact it's one of the Big Five personality traits and at some point you've probably been assessed on this personality trait either by an employer, future spouse or the psychologist sitting next to you at back-to-school night (sheessh, how many times can I listen to the same spiel?).

This afternoon when my kids sit down to do homework I'm going to apply all this new knowledge just after I clear off my kitchen table, dining room table and all other flat surfaces.

For those research-conscientious souls - read more about messiness and creativity on my new favorite blog "interrogating the popular press." Okay so I just discovered it this morning searching for last week's NY Times op-ed by the lead researcher, not to be confused with the New York Times article about the studies published this weekend.

Go ahead and read both NY Times pieces but in the interest of conscientious research here, I must point out the online title of the article - What A Messy Desk Says About You - doesn't accurately reflect the cited studies. I know, big surprise. The studies show the effects of a messy desk on people's preferences/behavior. They address how the environment (i.e. a messy or neat one) effects creativity. The title suggests a different study, how creativity effects environment. Maybe one where researchers give a bunch of people personality and creativity surveys then go observe their desks to figure out if they can accurately judge a person's creativity/conscientiousness by the neatness of their desk. Then the findings would go something like "creative people are more likely to have messy offices."

But that wasn't the present set of studies. Those say nothing directly about a person's innate traits. They don't tell us how personal traits like creativity influence people's behavior, whether chosing smoothies flavors or clearing out their workspace clutter. In terms of pure entertainment, however, the prospect of capturing people in their natural environment than having a panel of celebrities guess what they do for a living might make for good reality tv. Or the reverse, where viewers are invited into a celebrity's house or office and we have to intuit from their level of tidiness whether they are award-winning singer-songwriters or physicists (hmmm, Brian Green available?).

Unfortunately the print version title, Clean Up Your Desk!, seems to ignore the benefits of jumbled piles. Again, not a surprise here at Momma Data.

As long as we're at it, here are a few more headlines.

Before You Straighten Up Your Desk, Read This  

Pretty good.

Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity   

Accurate but...wake me up when it's over.

Can a Messy Desk Make You Creative?  

Good question.

Your Messy Desk Is Evidence of the Indomitable Creativity of Your Soul

Over-reaching but points for snark. 

Messy Desk, Creative Mind? Study Says Yes
Again, don't know a thing about any minds or any creative minds making desks appear any which way.

Caution, you might get pregnant reading this. 

...and the award for best headline goes to ...

Watch out. Your desk might be killing you right now. 

Note to Readers:  If you need hints for recycling old ping pong balls, read the op-ed in New York Times. Who doesn't need more ice-cube trays?

Note to New York Times:  Why do you use different titles for the print and online version? The Wall Street Journal doesn't.

Note to Future Self: My daughter's dorm room serves a purpose other than tormenting me.

Hey peeps, how you been? How's your desk.

Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity. Psychological Science,vol. 24 no. 9 1860-1867.  doi:10.1177/0956797613480186

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