The psychology of clutter and creativity: Study shows how a messy desk and creative work go hand in hand

Image via Wikimedia Commons

You may have been in contact at some point with Tracey Emin’s team My bed, an artistic installation that reproduces her private space at a time when she spent four days locked up in 1998, “heartbroken”: the bed is unmade, the bedside strewn with cigarettes, moccasins, a bottle of alcohol, of food and “what appears to be a sixteen year old condom”…. If you were savvy enough to be Tracey Emin in 1998 – and none of us were – you would have sold this messy piece for over four million dollars last year at a Christie’s auction. . I doubt another buyer of this caliber will come looking for a counterfeit, but that doesn’t mean the damage we do by gossiping around our own homes is worthless of its own, intangible.

These disorders, in fact, may be breeding grounds for creativity, confirming a cliche as persistent as that of doctors’ handwriting, and perhaps as accurate. It seems like a messy office, room, or studio can truly be a mark of genius at work. Albert Einstein, for example, writes Daily Elite, had an office that “looked like a mean ex-girlfriend on a mission to destroy her workspace.” Einstein responded to criticisms of his work habits by asking, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?”

Mark Twain also had a messy desk, “perhaps even more cluttered than Albert Einstein’s.” To find out whether the relationship between the disorder trait and creativity is simply an “urban legend” or not, Kathleen Vohs (a researcher at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota) and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments in both orderly and unruly spaces with 188 adults given elective tasks.

Vohs describes his findings in the New York Times, concluding that clutter and creativity are at least very strongly correlated, and that “while cleaning certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let the inspiration flow”. But there are compromises. Read about them in Vohs’ article – “Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity and conventionality, while disorder produces creativity.” And just above, see Vohs co-author Joe Redden, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, discuss the team’s fascinating results. If you’re conducting such an experiment on yourself, it might be best to do so in a space of your own, though like the rest of us, you’re too late to creatively turn the mess around. you make into lucrative concept art.

Below, as a bonus, you can watch Tracey Emin talk about the dark and emotional place from which My bed has emerged.

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on our site in 2015.

Related content:

Albert Einstein tells his son that the key to learning and happiness is to get lost in creativity (or “find the flow”)

Why You Think Best in the Shower: Creativity and the “Incubation Period”

John Cleese’s philosophy of creativity: Creating oases for children’s play

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, North Carolina. Follow him on @jdmagness