My husband and I have different views of what constitutes an acceptable level of chaos in our house. But the truth is, though I can obsess about visitors arriving in a relatively clutter-free “living room” space, the areas of our home in which we actually live exist in ever varying patterns of detritus. And our office spaces—well, don’t ask.
But there may be unconscious method to our madness. A collection of studies by Kathleen Vohs and colleagues examined differences in behavior in pristine and cluttered environments. The results were fascinating. Both neat and messy environments brought forth worthwhile behaviors—but not the same behaviors.
In a series of three experiments, the researchers found that participants asked to carry out tasks in an orderly environment were afterwards more likely to give generously to charity, and also more likely to choose an apple over a chocolate bar for a snack. In contrast, individuals working in a disordered environment produced more creative responses to a problem-solving task. In the third study, involving selecting items for a hypothetical restaurant menu, those in the cluttered environment were more likely to choose items seen as new, while those in the neat environment preferred those labeled “classic.”
So what does that mean? Can (should) I forgo cleaning my cluttered office and live patiently with the circle of chaos surrounding my husband’s favorite chair? If we’ve seeking to think creatively, perhaps so.
For teachers and parents, it may mean that we need to be cautious about assuming that any one type of environment is the “right” one. Of course young people need to learn about the benefits of organization and order. Those are tools that can be brought to bear on many kinds of thinking. But there are other times in which clutter and “stuff” may spur all of us to think in new directions. Finding space and time for such spaces is an effort worth exploring.
(And now, looking around this office, I’m having a definite urge for chocolate…..)
Vohs, K. D., Redden, J. P., & Rahinel, R.(2013). Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, and conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity. Psychological Science, 24(9