Clutter, Conformity and Creativity at Work

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Chances are good that you know one or more people with cluttered workspaces. Chances are also good that you've heard an old adage that disarray fosters creativity. 

Odd as it might seem, there is some truth to that aphorism. Carlson School Marketing faculty Joe Redden and Kathleen Vohs studied this possibility in laboratory experiments as part of a larger examination of the effects of office environments on employees' preferences, choices, and behavior. 

In a series of experiments, Redden and Vohs asked subjects to perform tasks in either tidy or cluttered settings. First, they answered a survey (which was the nominal reason for their participation); then they were asked to contribute to a charity, and were also offered an apple or a chocolate bar. The result: Participants in the neater rooms overwhelmingly opted to donate and selected the apple option. Subjects from the messier rooms were less willing to donate, and more likely to choose the candy instead. Why?

"A lot of our behavior conforms to what we think other people want us to do," says Redden. "If an environment is clean and professional, we feel we should act that way. And if it's more relaxed and carefree, we can let ourselves go a little bit." The neater rooms pushed people to conform to the more socially acceptable behaviors (donating and healthier eating).

What if you want less conformity and more creativity? The same principle applies. In another experiment with the same rooms, they asked participants to devise creative uses for a ping-pong ball. As Redden and Vohs suspected, subjects in the more cluttered room came up with far more ingenious uses.

The takeaway: "Tailor your work environment for the behaviors you want," says Redden. "A bank might want loan officers working in tightly organized spaces to encourage conformity to rules. On the other hand, an ad or marketing agency might permit or even encourage clutter to encourage out-of-the-box ads." 

And what about marketers who work for banks? "Well, the banks might want to get them off-site from time to time," Redden adds with a chuckle.

"Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity" Vohs, K., Redden, J., Rahinel, R., Psychological Science (in press)