Tidy Desk or Messy Desk? Each Has Its Benefits

Working at a clean and prim desk may promote healthy eating, generosity, and conventionality, according to new research. But, the research also shows that a messy desk may confer its own benefits, promoting creative thinking and stimulating new ideas.

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.”

In the first of several experiments, participants were asked to fill out some questionnaires in an office. Some completed the task in a clean and orderly office, while others did so in an unkempt one — papers were strewn about, and office supplies were cluttered here and there.

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

Being in a clean room seemed to encourage people to do what was expected of them, Vohs explains. Compared with participants in the messy room, they donated more of their own money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar.

But the researchers hypothesized that messiness might have its virtues as well. In another experiment, participants were asked to come up with new uses for ping pong balls.

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.

These preliminary data, coupled with the findings just published, are especially intriguing because of their broad relevance:

“We are all exposed to various kinds of settings, such as in our office space, our homes, our cars, even on the Internet,” Vohs observes. “Whether you have control over the tidiness of the environment or not, you are exposed to it and our research shows it can affect you.”

Co-authors on this research include Joseph Redden and Ryan Rahinel of the University of Minnesota. Redden discusses the new research in this video from the Carlson School of Management of the University of Minnesota.


Just call me Messy Tessy.
There’s a process and system behind and under piles. Doing what works that keeps new ideas churning.
Glad I stumbled upon your research and findings. Look forward to learning more.

A very poorly designed and operationalized study. Putting people in a room that is messy, then claiming those people are messy people is just so far from rational as to be laughable. This study confuses external environmental conditions with internal psychological traits. I used to teach research design to college undergrads. This poorly thought out study would never have made it past the mid-term evaluations. An embarrassment to real science and real scientists.

Now this study is being referenced in many places as authoritative and the final word on the merits of a messy desk vs a clean desk.

I would really like to see a well-designed study. My guess is it would show a huge diversity.

The study says nothing about “messy people” — it is about the effects of environment on people’s behavior. Two totally different things.

Pretty interesting article. Helped me not feel so bad about being a little bit of a messy mom too!

Hey John,
Imho and not to offend you or anyone else,but this study was about 6 rooms that were prearranged
Into different styles to see how individuals reacted in each environmental state of array. Not about presetting up a room to be cluttered and then calling the individual placed in the room messy.

Are you this rude to everyone?


My thoughts exactly — glad someone said it!

There is an old saying if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind what is an empty desk?

I guess an empty desk is where old, trite, wothless sayings find a home.

I think the study is weird as well. I am an A.D.D. kind of person who picks daisies where daisies don’t exist, so ignoring a mess is easy for me. But, I would be more likely to pick the apple than the chocolate because we have a horse that lives across the street and likes apples. Plus, I’m not so A.D.D. that I forget I need to watch my weight. My personal opinion is that people who are able to ignore their spacial surroundings are more capable of coming up with creative ideas, because they focus inward. This is also a characteristic of introverts. While I’m sitting at my laptop, surrounded by a major mess, messy websites drive me up a tree! If I can’t find what I want in a reasonable amount of time, I am off to the next website. People are too complex to be put into a box.

I keep a messy desk what does that mean

A pesquisa e boa o erro e não computar os desvios morais, de fato um ambiente limpo e prospero excluir diversos fatores que desenvolve criminalidades, porem há condutas morais que mesmo em uma sociedade liberal deveriam ser observadas; no campo profissional a chamada bagunça, poder ser considerada desordem para alguns para outros não! mais todos irão gostar de tudo em seu devido lugar devidamente assinalado é inegável!

Food for thought. I saw a TV show where the woman in red received more donations for the charity than when dressed in another color.

I have heard it said that keeping a clean desk indicates you spend too much time cleaning and organizing your work and not enough time in actually working…

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