Clean or Messy? Who's More Creative?

Finally.  I'm not just messy.  I'm creative.

That's according to a study, as written in an op-ed by Kathleen D. Vohs in Sunday's New York Times.  My desk may look like it's cluttered but I know where everything is, in what pile.  My husband, on the other hand, is -- there's no polite way to put it -- a slob.  Yet he, too, knows where everything is.

The deck was always stacked against us messy people. But the times, they may be a-changin'.

"The anthropologist Mary Douglas noted almost 50 years ago a connection between clean, open spaces and moral righteousness," Vohs writes. In another study, she points out, "People were found to associate chaotic wilderness with death."

People who tend to be tidy, who have everything in neat stacks on their desks, or better yet, in their desks, have always been thought to be the kind you'd want working for you.  But something else is up. Vohs says in her studies her teams predicted "that being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions." It's turning out that those of us who are messy are, well, creative.

Think about it.  Don't you have friends who have all their books alphabetized, and their spices, too? Or colleagues who know they're seeing client X on the third Thursday of every month at 2:18 and 05 seconds?  Then there are the people like me who pretty much fly by night through life.  I remember a friend asking when I go to do an interview, do I bring questions or do I just wing it?  You probably guessed it.  I just ask whatever floats into my mind.  It pretty much works out.

Vohs and her team did a series of experiments where they had participants perform activities in messy rooms and clean rooms.  As expected, each group completed the tasks -- one, to think of new ways to use Ping Pong balls, another whether to choose a smoothie with a health boost and either "classic"or "new" in its name -- the only difference being, whether they were asked the questions in a tidy or messy room.

Not surprisingly, on the smoothie one, when participants were in the uncluttered room, they chose the "health" boost more often -- and twice as many times when it also had "classic" in the name. The ones in the messy room, however chose "new," leading the team to conclude "people greatly preferred convention in the tidy room and novelty in the messy room."

People who chose "classic" clearly went for the conventional, the tried and true, the orderly, while those in the messy room chose "new," for its aura of novelty and adventurousness.

But on the Ping-Pong challenge is where the creativity bit came into focus.  Reports Vohs, "When we analyzed the responses, we found that the subjects in both types of rooms came up with about the same number of ideas, which meant they put about the same effort into the task. Nonetheless, the messy room subjects were more creative, as we expected. Not only were their ideas 28 percent more creative on average, but when we analyzed the ideas that judges scored as 'highly creative,' we found a remarkable boost from being in the messy room — these subjects came up with almost five times the number of highly creative responses as did their tidy-room counterparts."

So, who's right?  I guess it's all up to the individual (though I do, smugly, prize my messiness, er, creativity)e. As Vohs notes, ""While cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow."      



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