Chaos, Not Order, Spark Creativity

Being neat and tidy has always been associated with order, tradition and general good sense. But being a slob may have a worse reputation than it deserves, according to a new study suggestig that a disorderly environment can spark creativity.

The study, led by University of Minnesota management professor Dr. Kathleen Vohs and published in Psychological Science on August 1st, found that an orderly environment encourages such "orderly" behavior as healthful eating, charitable giving, and a sense of tradition, while a disorderly environment can trigger creative behavior. In addition, researchers found that manipulating the environment (between orderly and disorderly) can trigger the different behaviors.

The idea of physical orderliness and behavior comes from what sociologists call the "Broken Windows Theory," which states that miniscule hints of disorder (like, say, a cracked window), can result in childhood delinquency and criminal behavior. Hence, disorder's bad rap. Dr. Vohs' work, however, shows that "order and disorder are common states of the environment that activate different mindsets, which in turn might benefit different outcomes," they wrote. In other words, one person's mess is another person's next great big idea.

In their study, researchers performed three experiments. The first found that Dutch students in a room with no clutter tended to donate more money to charity, and chose a healthy apple over an unhealthy chocolate bar as a snack. Students in a cluttered room did quite the opposite. In the second experiment, American students were asked to create new uses for a Ping-Pong (table tennis) ball. The students in the disorderly room were much more creative in their suggestions for new uses of the balls, indicating that breaking away from tradition (a sign of creativity), was spurred by a cluttered, disorderly environment.

Finally, American adults, seated either in a cluttered or clean room, were asked to choose a restaurant menu item that was either labeled "new" or "classic." Participants in the tidy rooms were more likely to choose an option marked "classic," while those in the cluttered room instead chose the "new" item (even though the menu referred to the same item--but the participants didn't know that).

So, which is better, order or chaos? As the researchers point out, "both sides have a point." Healthy choices and social conventions (including altruism) are boosted by an orderly environment, but creative solutions so necessary in fields like science, engineering, the arts and even some political arenas, are not. The research also suggests that in many cases, you can have both, so perhaps you should try a bit of both worlds.


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