What’s Better… Messy or Clean?


Picture found here

Formerly, the dominant notion is that the best way to carry out one’s life is to be clean and organized. However, scientists are starting to notice that there are some benefits to being messy. According to various studies, relatively messier people have shown to be more creative and forward thinking. For instance, this New York Times article explains a study where 48 people were randomly allocated to either an orderly or disheveled table space, and then asked generate ways that ping pong balls could be used aside from the game of ping pong. Their ideas were then rated on creativity. After the data was analyzed, the experiment discovered that the participants placed in messier rooms had higher creativity ratings, 28% more creative than the people in organized spaces to be statistically specific. The New York Times article also mentions that similar experiments have been replicated in various activities that would channel creativity, such as drawing and problem solving. In each undertaking tested, clear evidence that disorderly spaces may inspire more creative thinking was shown. However, a pitfall to this experiment is exactly how to quantify creativity. Creativity is subjective, so although the article calls the raters “independent judges” and considers their rating to be “done reliably” there is still some skepticism as to whether the result of the experiment would change if the set of raters were different. Also, the sample size of this experiment is relatively small, so I personally feel the need for a larger sample to make the study even more substantial.



Pictures directly from Appendix of published research but referenced in Business Insider article

The underlying question is, assuming this study is valid, is it better to think creatively than conventionally? Should we as individuals stop cleaning our desks and thinking spaces to encourage our brains to be more disorderly and innovative? This Business Insider article explores this paradox. For instance, they bring forth the timeline of completing a task, which requires more creative brainstorming in the beginning and gradually becomes more orderly as the individual organizes such ideas. Thus, this would indicate that a disorderly space would be more beneficial in the beginning stages, but tidiness would gradually become more advantageous. In addition, a bias of the study would be the industry in which the individual is working within. For instance, an artist might be more inclined to maintain disorder than an accountant due to the fact that an accountant’s profession requires more conventional and organized thinking. Finally, in my research I came across a red flag in terms of the science  done on this question. Both articles mentioned previously AND this one from the Association for Psychological Science all pull their conclusion from the same study done at University of Minnesota. u_of_m_logo_2There are two explanations for this repetition: a lack of scientific curiosity or the file drawer dilemma. This study was only published in 2013, so maybe scientists have just recently came across the “messy desk” phenomena and haven’t done much research on the question yet. Subsequently, maybe they have done research that has been tucked away due to the fact that it has yielded traditional results in favor of orderly spaces. We discussed this bias of the “boring” findings as the as the file drawer problem in class, and this messy vs clean controversy could be a valid example. Overall, the findings are interesting, yet more prospective investigation is most definitely necessary before we frantically tidy or chaotically destroy our spaces. In my personal experimentation, I have favored having an organized desk when completing my work… how about you all?

7 thoughts on “What’s Better… Messy or Clean?

  1. Mairead Donnard

    This was extremely interesting to read! Without thinking, if I was asked if it was better to be messier or clean, I would definitely say clean. However, I think that the type of environment that works well for one person, might not work as well for another. It can be concluded that it depends on the person about whether or not it works better for them to be messy or clean. Here is an article that discusses the advantages of working in a clean environment: http://www.cleanlink.com/news/article/Advantages-To-Maintaining-A-Clean-Workplace–15353 . The advantage the stuck out the most to me was the positive correlation between a clean environment and health. This point is logical and enough to convince me that a clean environment is certainly better than a messier environment!

  2. Rebecca Aronow

    This blog was really interesting to read. My dad always told me that to be successful you have to be organized, but this seems to somewhat contradict that. I think there’s definitely a difference between organized chaos and just plain chaos. For example, my email is organized into folders within folders within folders, but my friend’s inbox is filled with all of the emails since they created their email, and I think they would argue that we’re both equally as creative and productive. But a hoarder’s basement is a type of chaos that I think can’t be qualified as at all organized (although I guess that may depend on the hoarder). However, what this really made me think of was my sister. If you go into my room, you will see no clothes on the floor and everything in just the right place. Once in a while my room will get messy but I’ll go on a cleaning binge one day and clean until it’s absolutely perfect. My sister, on the other hand, has a room where you can barely see the floor. She has objects and papers in her bed that she doesn’t even clear off before she goes to sleep, which is unbelievable to me. Even if my room is messy, my bed is always perfectly clean. And if you look at my sister’s personality versus mine, she is undeniably the more creative one. She paints, she draws, she makes clothes, she takes photographs, but her room is an absolute mess. So maybe it’s not that messy spaces allow people to be more creative, but that people who are messier are inherently more creative—reverse causation. Just looking at my experience, this would seem to be the case. I don’t feel like I can be productive in a space that is messy, although if I’m brainstorming for a photoshoot I am able to do so in a messy space—so maybe there is validity in messy spaces cultivating creativity as well. Overall, I think more studies need to be done before we can draw any conclusions, but this is very interesting to think about and I will definitely experiment with how cluttered spaces influence my creativity as well as productivity in the future.

  3. Kateryna Okhrimchuk

    Good job on your blog! Not only is this a really interesting topic but I like how you included many of the biases that came with the results as well. Another flaw that I believe the study that the New York Times wrote about has was the fact that people were randomly allocated into the messy and clean rooms, instead of being able to choose which ones they wanted to go into themselves. A person who is generally messy could’ve been put into a clean room and vise versa, skewing the results if that wasn’t the environment they were used to working in. Randomly selecting people for the study itself may have been a flaw as well because creativity definitely depends on the type of person that you are. Someone who has a degree in graphic design will definitely be a lot more creative than a person with a degree in finance. Age plays a huge factor as well. Younger people and kids tend to be more creative than adults and senior citizens. Even speaking from my personal experience, messy rooms actually make me anxious when I’m trying to do my work and I can only work when it’s super clean. This topic is very interesting, though, and I hope that more research is done to find out what environment were most productive in.

  4. Samantha Francesca Sichenze

    Great job! I enjoyed this blog very much. It was a very interesting topic to choose. I find the results of the ping pong ball experiment to be surprising. Coming from a personal opinion, I do my best work when my space is neat and clean. I start to get anxiety if everything is out of place and chaotic. In this article, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/high-octane-women/201203/why-mess-causes-stress-8-reasons-8-remedies, it shows how messes can cause stress and anxiety. The mess can cause distractions, which leads a person to not focus. However, it interests me that although it can cause anxiety, it can cause a person to be more creative.

  5. Michael David Kresovich

    Messy or clean is such a interesting topic. I say this because of my past experience with the two opposing views. I knew a kid from grade school that achieved all A’s and led the school with test scores and even had to go to the high school in order to take a higher math class. His desk in our classroom was the messiest in the entire class, his papers were everywhere. While on the other end I remember someone having a very clean notebook organizer and he was on top of his originzation skills, but he could barley complete his homework assignments. Hard work is often represented by mess or clutter because it means that it is working diligently.While I have seen cases when cleanliness and completion go hand-in-hand. I found the studies to be intriguing as well.

  6. Lydia A Chelli

    I agree with your post and analysis of the study that was done on creative people vs. messy ones. When I was reading your description of the study, I was thinking that the results could be likely due to chance since there were merely 48 people in the study. The randomization improves the way the study was done, but I like how you addressed the potential bias that comes with measuring creativity, which is very difficult to do. This would be a more effective study if hundreds of people were selected and did multiple tests of organization- instead of just one. I enjoyed reading this and liked how you addressed the errors in the experimental process!

  7. Zihan Wang

    Hi, Hannah Marni Stern. Before reading your blog, I believe that clean is better than messy, because clean condition can make us feel enjoyable and methodic. I can’t find anything positive for messy . But your article give me a new view to relook at this topic, messy can make us become more creative. In another paragraph, you state that this experiment has no enough resource. I think it’s a good comparison like what discuss in class. For me, I like clean condition same to you, even though messy can make people more creativity. To make me feel happy everyday, I try to make my room organized and clean. Here is a video for your topic

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