Kurt Bayer

Kurt Bayer is an APNZ reporter based in Christchurch.

Messy desk, creative mind - study

Owners of messy desks are more creative and imaginative than their neat-freak colleagues, according to a new study.

Albert Einstein, a famously messy worker, once said: "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?"

Now, he has science to back up his claims that chaos and clutter help you think more creatively and dream up more imaginative ideas.

University of Minnesota researchers believe disorder inspires the mind to break free of convention.

"Prior work has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things: not engage in crime, not litter, and show more generosity," psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs said in the study published in the journal Psychological Science.

"We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting."

In one experiment, office workers were asked to fill out some questionnaires.

Some completed the task in a clean and orderly office, while others did so in an unkempt one with papers strewn about and cluttered office supplies.

Afterward, the participants were presented with the opportunity to donate to a charity, and allowed to take a snack of chocolate or an apple.

Those in the tidy office were more likely to donate and chose the healthy option over the chocolate.

In another experiment, the messy desk brigade came out of top.

Participants were asked to come up with new uses for ping pong balls.

Messy deskers generated the same number of new ideas as their prim and proper opponents, but their ideas were rated as more interesting and more creative when evaluated by impartial judges.

"Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of: creativity," said Professor Vohs.

"Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights."

Whether the environment was tidy or unkempt made a "whopping difference" in behaviour, the study found.

University of Canterbury psychologist Professor Deak Helton said the study "makes sense''.

"There's a whole lot of literature in psychology called priming, which says you can use environmental stimuli to trigger changes in people's states," said Prof Helton, a proud proprietor of a sprawling workplace which he admits "looks like a bomb hit it".

"A lot of the way we operate is in cycles of perception and action, so a lot of our conceptual, higher level stuff gets embedded in the real world.

"The more stuff, the more stimuli around, could actually prompt thoughts or unconventional uses for things or thinking outside the square."

Ross Kiddie, office health and safety representative for Christchurch-based Mainland Media, was relaxed about the state of workers' desks.

"I can understand how it could spark the creative juices," he said.

"It wouldn't become a health and safety issue unless the overspill could trip up other staff members, or it was becoming a fire hazard, or food scraps were attracting rodents or ants."

Famous Messy Desks

Apple founder Steve Jobs

Physicist Albert Einstein

Author Mark Twain

Discoverer of penicillin Alexander Fleming

Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing

Figurative painter Francis Bacon

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- APNZ

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