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Nuts & Bolts

September 20, 2013

If your desk is a mess, you must be a genius

(Continued)

But here's where those of us with poor moral fiber and the inability to find anything ever get our own back: College students were then ushered into spaces either immaculate or slovenly and instructed to concoct new uses for ping pong balls. Two independent judges, reviewing their ideas, concluded that the students brainstorming while surrounded by mess generated more creative proposals. So while my coworker may make healthier choices than I do and function as a better member of society, I am theoretically better positioned to dream up novel treatments for props related to table tennis. Yes! I will never clean my desk again.

The third experiment is perhaps the most revealing in terms of how workspace tidiness affects our thought processes. In this concluding portion of the study, adults could add one of two healthy "boosts" to their lunchtime smoothie: the "classic" boost or the "new" boost. Participants who had spent time in well-kept rooms were more likely to hew to "tradition and convention," the researchers write, by selecting the "classic" supplement; those assigned to messy rooms more often chose the "new." Of course, maybe volunteers whose surroundings had just induced in them sad thoughts of entropy wanted a change, while those who had luxuriated in restful cleanliness were stoked for more of the same. But it seems possible that being immersed in clutter loosens up some internal mechanisms, for better or worse.

Indeed, according to the authors, the mental disruption inflicted by a messy space "can produce fresh insights" — about ping pong balls — but it can also relax crucial internal codes: be nice, eat apples.

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