Getting messy for creativity

Slobbish may be too strong a word to describe my working environment, notes piled on top of newspaper articles piled on top of notes, CD’s and DVD’s strewn about, sticky notes plastered all over my computer, pens and paper placed haphazardly, but a recent study proves that being messy is great for creativity.

The new studies, conducted by psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs and her fellow researchers at the University of Minnesota are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Prior work has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things: Not engage in crime, not litter, and show more generosity,” Vohs explains. “We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting.”

How well does this statement of ‘clean leads to good’ stack up with history?

Famous slobs: Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln.

Famous neat freaks: David Beckam, Adolf Hitler, Martha Stewart, Tiger Woods, Jessica Alba.

Overall, participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses as their clean-room counterparts. But their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges.

“Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of: Creativity,” says Vohs.

The researchers also found that when participants were given a choice between a new product and an established one, those in the messy room were more likely to prefer the novel one — a signal that being in a disorderly environment stimulates a release from conventionality. Whereas participants in a tidy room preferred the established product over the new one.

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

Surprisingly, the specific physical location didn’t seem to matter:

“We used 6 different locations in our paper — the specifics of the rooms were not important. Just making that environment tidy or unkempt made a whopping difference in people’s behavior,” says Vohs.

The researchers are continuing to investigate 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.

Oh Crap! How the heck do I transfer my natural disorderliness to such an orderly set of computer code used to generate this wordpress blog?

What the world needs now may well be ‘love, sweet love’ as the song suggests, but I’d sure like the software coders of the world to get creative and offer-up some messiness options for users like me to use.