Everyone has a particular way they like to keep their desk. Some people can only work if their desk is spotless, with not a paperclip out of place. Others need at least three balled-up pieces of paper scattered across their desk to finish some work.
A famous study by Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota helped justify people’s messy desk vs. clean desk preferences.
A BIG STUDY
In this study, Vohs and colleagues found that having a clean desk caused people to do things we consider good choices as a society, such as giving to charity. This study entitled “Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, and conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity” also found that a messy desk made people more creative, coming up with novel ideas.
This study instantly became famous, shared worldwide, as it provided an easy justification for a messy or spotless workspace.
However, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology tried to replicate this study and shows at least some of these results may not hold up.
This study, “Workspace Disorder Does Not Influence Creativity and Executive Functions,” attempted to use the same methods as Vohs to replicate their messy desk finding.
To do this, they had participants complete a series measuring their creativity at either a messy or clean desk. The messy desk had folders, markers, papers, and pencils scattered about haphazardly, whereas the clean desk had all the same things in a nice row at the back of the desk.
HOW DO YOU TEST CREATIVITY?
One of the tasks, the Alternative Uses Task (shortened to AUT), was the same task used in the original Vohs study. In the AUT task, participants are asked to devise as many uses for an object (such as a ping-pong ball or an automobile tire) as they can in five minutes.
Their responses are then scored on their creativity by researchers’ blind to whether they are sitting at a messy or clean desk. For instance, using an automobile tire as a unicycle would be rated higher on creativity than using it on the rear axle of your Jeep.
The researchers also added additional measures of creativity in their study. They used twice as many participants as the original Vohs study to ensure that they could see differences in creativity between those at a messy and a clean desk if the difference exists.
A FAILED REPLICATION OF THE MESSY DESK VS CLEAN DESK THEORY
Despite this, they found no difference in creativity between the messy and clean desks in any of their creativity measures. This conflicts with Vohs’s findings and throws their results into question.
The authors of the failed replication do caution about throwing Voh’s results out, saying that perhaps minor differences in the studies or even differences in participants could explain the conflicting findings.
Like many of our desks, the research on desk organization itself is a bit messy, but the question remains, “Should we clean it up?”