In Defense of Being a Slob
August 22, 2013

In Defense Of Being A Slob

I am not a neat person. Never have been, and I doubt that will ever change. You can ask my mom; I’ve been a slob since day one. There is always a pile of dirty clothes, or a floor that needs sweeping at my house. Right now, since the new semester is starting next week, it is piles of art supplies and yarn everywhere.

A recent Good Morning America report suggests that being a slob just might be a good thing.

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is something I grew up hearing. Basically, that means that to be a good person, or a productive person, I needed to be a neat person. It was usually followed with “Everything has its place,” just before Mom slammed my closet door shut to hide the pile of clothing, shoes and band equipment.

Researchers at the University of Michigan decided to take on this idea of neatness by looking at a long-held principle of human honesty and productivity — keep your work area clean and you will be more likely to work your tail off, stay honest, be generous with your coworkers, and on and on.

“We were thinking about doing a paper showing how being tidy makes people kind of do the right thing,” psychologist Kathleen Vohs, said in a telephone interview. “And then we started challenging ourselves. Is there anything that goes along with a messy environment that could be good?”

Vohs and her colleagues conducted experiments in Holland and the US, to see if there were any benefits to being “untidy.” The researchers were surprised by their findings, which were published in the journal Psychological Science.

The results suggest that a messy work environment can bring out the creativity in a person, leading to the birth of bold, new ideas. This means that people with cluttered desks have an easier time thinking outside the box, or at least above the horizon of the office neat freaks.

The researchers caution that their results don’t mean “you can set a nitwit in front of a cluttered desk and end up with another Einstein.” No matter how much clutter is in an office, the person has to have an innate creativity to activate or it won’t work. The research does indicate, however, that a little clutter might set that creativity free.

“The environment doesn’t create something that isn’t already there,” Vohs said. “To the extent that you are creative, it pulls it out of you.”

There aren’t many studies on the effects of a messy desk, so there isn’t much to compare this research with. However, the team did involve a large number of participants from a wide range of ages.

The results indicate that the “broken windows theory” of sociology is not entirely right. Vohs and her companions say that this theory “posits that minor signs of disorder can cause much bigger consequences, such as delinquency and criminality.” Their research suggests otherwise — that instead, messy environments leave people free to be creative, not criminals.

“Orderly environments would encourage adherence to social convention and overall conservatism, whereas disorderly environments would encourage people to seek novelty and unconventional routes.”

“Our findings imply that varying the environment can be an effective way to shape behavior.”

The team conducted three experiments. Participants were assigned tasks while seated in a neat, orderly office, or in an office that was identical in every way except that it was filled with clutter – papers on the floor and stacks of files on the desk.

The first experiment tested 34 Dutch students to see if the neatness of the room had any effect on their generosity and sense of needing to do the right thing. For example, at the end of the experiment, the students were asked to contribute to a worthy cause.

Only 47 percent of the students in the disorderly room contributed, while 82 percent of the students in the orderly room did. These same students were offered a treat – an apple or a piece of candy. The orderly room students were three times more likely to choose the apple. The researchers say the moral of this story is orderliness brings out a need to do the right thing.

The second experiment, also in Holland, asked the participants to come up with new uses for ping-pong balls to help a manufacturer.

“Participants in the disorderly room generated more highly creative ideas than did participants in the orderly room,” the study said.

Experiment number three happened in the US, where 188 adults were asked to pick from a list of options to be added to a restaurant’s menu. The people who worked in the orderly office were far more likely to pick a healthy option than the people in the disorderly room.

The research team calls their results “robust” — meaning that there is little doubt that the environment directly influenced the behavior.

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” the researchers concluded. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

Vohs says something good can come from either environment — a neat workspace may help one individual walk the straight and narrow, while a cluttered space may help someone else to figure out a new way to keep from walking at all.

I’m not sure that they answered Einstein’s famous question, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”  But I do know that Einstein was a slob, and one of the most creative minds of our times.

What’s the takeaway message here?  For me that’s easy. I now have scientific proof that being a slob is a good thing, so I’m not going to start cleaning any time soon.

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