While stereotypes are generally bad things and not to be encouraged by-and-large, in many cases they often turn out to have some basis in reality. This is particularly true when it comes to psychology or behaviour – we often hold various beliefs and associations about certain types of people or people with certain behavioural traits without really knowing why, only to have them later verified by science.
Here’s one great example: messy people really are more creative. Or at least it looks that way…
The ‘scatter-brained-genius’ archetype is one that’s been around for a long time and there are many examples of people who we think of as at once creative, genius a messy such as Albert Einstein, Mark Zuckerberg or Roald Dahl. Einstein allegedly actually once said ‘if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?’. And according to research by the University of Minnesota it appears as though a link does in fact exist.
In one study, participants were placed in either a tidy room or a messy room and were then asked to come up with methods for selling ping-pong balls. The group in the messy rooms came up with more creative ideas (according to impartial judges). Previous studies had found that those in messy rooms are better at solving brain teasers and are more likely to paint creative pictures.
Another study by the same Minnesota group tried asking participants what flavour of smoothie they wanted. Those in tidier rooms were more likely to pick options like ‘classic’ compared to those in messy rooms who liked the idea of ‘new’ flavours more.
Interestingly though, other studies have shown that people in tidy environments are more likely to donate money to charity and more likely to make healthy diet choices.
Notice here that there is a correlation, but the causality is not the way round you might expect. Traditionally we associate creative thinkers with messy rooms because we think that creative and genius types are less organised and so more likely to create messy environments. Creative genius thinking = messy room.
In these studies though the room is a predefined variable and the cause is working the other way. Here it’s the messiness that’s making those people more creative.
So why might this be?
Well whichever way around the correlation is working, it makes sense that clutter and creativity should be linked to some extent. That’s because creativity is generally defined as the ability to connect disparate ideas to create new ones. A creative person in other words can look at a two unrelated subjects and then come up with a way to combine them into something new.
This is the opposite of ordered and structured thinking which is defined as taking ideas and placing them in logical categories. It may be the fact that thoughts and things are in technically the ‘wrong place’ that leads to breakthroughs. And seeing as our environment can influence the structure of our thoughts (in much the same way that music and other things can), it makes sense to think that a disorganised environment might lead to more disorganised – and thus creative – thought patterns. Similarly, simply having more visual stimuli in our line of sight may give us more input for the overall mix. Likewise though, if we have chaotic thought patterns, then our ideas of where things should go might also be more chaotic.
Not so Fast!
But before you start muddling up your work papers and tossing your food wrappers on the floor, bear in mind that messy environments also make us stressed which has been shown to hamper creativity (adrenaline is capable of creating a kind of ‘tunnel vision’).
And it’s also worth bearing in mind that the correlation has some less profound reasons for existing too. For instance someone who is creative/intelligent and highly successful as in the examples we mentioned is likely to also be very busy, which we all know can lead to a messy environment. Mark Zuckerberg’s messiness may not be tied to his creativity, but rather the fact that he is running a multi-billion-dollar organisation…
A disorganised mind may simply not have time for organisation, or may be concerning themselves more with other more heady matters (who wants to clean when you’re discovering relativity?). In that case, having a tidy and organised environment and a highly creative mind might lead to even better things.