Science Explains What The State Of Your Desk Says About You

While coworkers may be concerned about your mild hoarding, your messy desk may indicate boundary-breaking thinking (while a clean desk says "doing the right thing").

Does every object on your desk have its proper place? Do you keep your pencils sharpened to the exact same length and dust regularly between your computer keys? Or maybe there’s so much junk on your desk that you can’t even see the surface. Maybe all that crap looks like it’s levitating. It turns out, there are benefits to both types of work spaces.

A recent study published in Psychological Science, found that subjects who worked in a clean room were more likely to make charitable donations and eat healthy foods than those who worked in a messy room. For example, when participants in the clean room were offered chocolate or fruit, they chose the fruit. Kathleen Vohs, a psychological scientist at the University of Minnesota, said the clean room "cued [subjects] to 'do the right thing’—that which is expected of you."

In contrast, researchers found that a messy work space cued subjects to defy convention. "Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights," Vohs says. In a second experiment, subjects in a messy room generated more interesting ideas when asked to find alternative uses for a ping-pong ball, such as cutting the ball in half and using it to make ice cubes. Also, when given a deli menu featuring "new" and "classic" smoothies, subjects in the messy room were more likely to choose the "new" drink.

Vohs says the study’s findings have immediate and practical implications. Preliminary research has found that people are more likely to donate money to an organization when its website features a clean, user-friendly design. And if you really want to get your creative juices flowing, then by all means, make a mess. "To elicit the creativity you have inside you," Vohs says, "you should clutter your local environment and bring it out."

[Image: Flickr users KittyKaht, and Solarbotics]

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  • JoaoRochaDesigner

    I think it is very important to know if subjects were assigned desks or were tested at their own workplaces.

    this makes a huge difference

  • Guest

    Just to throw out some astrological examples:Virgo is highly organized and a clean freak  so to speak. Also a left brained/practical energy. Where as It's opposite, Pisces, is a right brained water energy. Scattered, prone to illusions, likes art and photography. Basically a more creative person.  Creative people are probably more likely to defy convention, and be more messy.

    Interesting article.

  • David M. Beach

    hmmm well my house is kind of like my desk... I must be the king of creative people...

  • Night Thinker

    Neatniks never experience that amazingly satisfying experience of looking over stacks of books and papers and putting your fingers right on that one document you piled there 8 months earlier. Eureka! 

    I've always believed that people with naked desks didn't have enough work to do. (Or, they have underlings who carry way all of their work to unseen locations.) And those with the spotless workspaces view those of us with messy desks as disorganized and somewhat inefficient. Both camps are right.

  • Wabisabiecofashionconcept

     Now I have scientific proof to justify my mess. This is wonderful!!!

  • Tim Geoghegan

    When I'm concepting and experimenting and prototyping, my desk - and everything else around me - is an utter mess. Something from hoarders. But if I ever hope to produce, I need a super clean, obsessively-neat space, with specific colored post-its. Creativity, I feel, is essentially what a 'ADD' often is; random, fast associations and pairings of disparate concepts – but it's the 'hyperfocus' part that's very much needed to act upon on anything. You have to be able to mentally switch gears, or many will get stuck in 'ideating' mode without producing as much as they could. In that case, finding the right system (or business, where you work with 'producers' or 'agents') is essential and a symbiosis. Unfortunately, most businesses don't understand how different minds work and how creating an elastic system to accommodate all types of thinkers can lead to breakthroughs. 

  • Derek

    Interesting... I have a clean desk at work and a messy room/desk at home. What does that make me? :P

  • Juli

    You have more passion for what you do at home than at work. Super creative at home, and "by the book" at work.

  • James

    Remember that correlation does not mean causation. "'To elicit the creativity you have inside you,' Vohs says, 'you should clutter your local environment and bring it out.'" This is nonsense.

  • Scott

     It's entirely possible to justify the causation when you consider the potential for chaotic visual stimulation. Simply breaking the expected is sometimes impetus enough to cause a shift in thinking - visual clutter may cause the mind to seek out patterns and order, and thereby make novel connections.

    While you are generally right, don't rely on conditioned first-order responses, especially when you don't have the context of the study in detail when commenting.

  • Jonathan J. Fischer

    Interesting that "And if you really want to get your creative juices flowing, then by all means, make a mess. "To elicit the creativity you have inside you," Vohs says, "you should clutter your local environment and bring it out."

    I wouldn't have thought that one can create a creative mindset by cluttering the desk, rather that a cluttered desk is merely the manifestation of a creative mindset.