A cluttered desk is the path to a creative mind

Two philosophies of office organization seem to exist. My own desk typically epitomizes “a place for everything and everything in its place”, but I know others who are sure that “a clean desk is a sign of a messy desk drawer” and so just let the paperwork and pens pile up. The latest from Psychological Science offers good news to adherents of both philosophies.

Ten minutes at a tidy desk encouraged Dutch students were more willing to donate a few Euros more to a charity, and were three times more likely to pick an apple as a snack instead of a chocolate bar. The righteously clean can feel even more righteous, as their clean desks might inspire generosity and healthy choices in office visitors.

Inspiring creativity, just not generosity. Photo by edmittance; used under Creative Commons license.

Inspiring creativity, just not generosity. Photo by edmittance; used under Creative Commons license.

However, tidy desks don’t always win the day. American students sitting in a tidy room generated fewer creative uses for a ping pong ball, in one of my favorite tests of creativity. So perhaps as a professor – whose job is more to encourage creative thinking than it is to promote prosocial behavior or healthy eating – I should be artfully arranging signs of chaos on my desk surface.

The desk-inspired behaviors are thought to be two sides of the same coin, unconscious influence on our mind-sets. Physical order activates subconscious ideas of moral order and convention, leading students to select conventionally appropriate actions like giving and health food. Meanwhile, physical disorder activates ideas of being free from conventional strictures (such as your mother’s insistence that you clean your room), letting you break free of conventionality in other, ping-pong related ways.It’s yet another example of how perceptions we aren’t even conscious of might be influencing our behavior.

It’s also my excuse the next time I’m in a rush and my desk looks like the end result of a very localized tornado. Perhaps I shall design a sign for such occasions: “I’m inspiring creativity!”

Vohs, K.D, Redden, J.P., & Rahinel, R. (2013). Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, and conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity. Psychological Science PMID: 23907542


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