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Here’s something neat: Being messy has its benefits

The discussion about tidiness has always been a bit messy.

Are you born neat? Perhaps it's an innate cognitive thing. You think hierarchically, therefore order in your outside environment (as an extension of the one inside your head) is important. Or is it a matter of how you were brought up? Does it emerge based on the demand of one's role or job? I, for instance, have developed a stress-response tidiness tic. My family always knows I'm anxious when they see me meticulously scrubbing the kitchen counter.

Being messy or tidy is a defining archetypal characteristic. Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz created Pig-Pen, the boy who walked in a cloud of dirt.

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Charlie Brown teased him. Snoopy was disgusted. But, hey, Peppermint Patty found it possible to love him – at least over the course of one, brief four-frame comic strip.

Society – not to mention your parents and your partner – does not condition us to aspire to messiness. If the number of decluttering articles in shelter magazines is anything to go by, it would seem that a lack of order not only ruins that clean landscape of home but can also be bad for your health. (One specialist in women and stress, Sherrie Bourg Carter, has written extensively about how clutter instills anxiety by providing an overload of stimuli and signalling to the brain that work is never done.) And we always have Martha Stewart's domestic dictum to try to live up to: "Life is too complicated not to be orderly."

But now, new research shows that messiness can be good for you.

Kathleen Vohs, a psychological scientist and professor at the University of Minnesota, wasn't looking to upset domestic and societal cleanliness standards when she began a research project that would explore the relationship between messiness and creativity. The findings, which were published in Psychological Science magazine in August, show that, while tidy environments are good for some things, they don't promote creative thinking or stimulate new ideas.

In the first part of the study, conducted to test the benefits of orderliness, students were asked to perform a series of tasks in either a clutter-free room or a room that was scattered with papers and other items. At the end, they were asked to donate money to a charity and to choose a snack – either a fresh apple or a chocolate bar.

It turns out that 82 per cent of people in the tidy room offered to give money compared with 47 per cent in the messy one.

And 67 per cent of those in the orderly setting chose the apple, compared with only 20 per cent of students in the messy room. (Who knew? A new sub-genre in wellness could be just around the corner: Tidy rooms make for trim waists!)

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However, further test situations in the study showed that creativity suffers if you live in a clutter-free environment, a finding that could have been called the Albert Einstein Factor. (He looked unkempt and was reportedly messy in his personal life, but was certainly a creative genius.)

Nearly 50 research subjects were invited individually into one of two laboratory settings – messy or tidy – and asked to brainstorm ideas for a Ping Pong factory that wanted to promote new uses for its product. Both groups came up with the same number of ideas, but those in the messy room offered ideas that were "highly creative," according to an independent evaluation.

For example, the messy-room thinkers suggested Ping Pong balls could be used as ice-cube trays or on the feet of chairs to protect floors. Ideas emanating from the tidy room were deemed less creative – one involved using Ping Pong balls to play beer pong. (Uh, hello? People already do that.)

"Being in a messy room led to creativity, and that's something organizations and others might want to pay attention to," Vohs explained in a telephone conversation.

Participants in the messy room were 28 per cent more creative on average, she noted, although she stopped short of explaining why a mess stimulates creativity – an untidy loose end of her research, one might say.

Another experiment in the same study showed that, compared with tidy-room people, research subjects in messy environments were twice as likely to reach for a new product rather than one identified as classic. "The idea is that, when things are tidy and orderly, it promotes thinking that is conventional; the opposite is [supposedly] true when people are in a messy environment. Not thinking in conventional ways is the definition of creativity."

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Vohs goes so far as to warn that creativity may be "hampered by the minimalist design movement."

She even suggests that one could "engineer" one's creativity quotient.

If, in other words, you have a work assignment that requires adherence to rules and a conservative approach, sit yourself down at a tidy desk. (Filling out your expense report comes to mind.)

But if you have something creative to produce? Feel free to toss those magazines on the floor and fling some pencils across the table.

According to Vohs, there are two types of untidy environments. One is disorganized. The other is plain dirty.

"It's more about clutter as a good thing," she said. "We are not talking about messy environments that elicit disgust."

Well, phew. Your teenagers still have to pick up their dirty laundry. At least that much is clear.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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