Tidying the desk is something we rarely get around to, until your boss complains about the 5-foot-high pile of paperwork threatening to fall over. But next time they do, you can tell them that the mess is promoting creative thinking and stimulating new ideas, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota have discovered that although a tidy desk can encourage healthy eating, generosity and conventionality, an untidy desk can also be beneficial.

Kathleen Vohs, psychological scientist at the University of Minnesota, says:

“Prior work has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things – not engage in crime, not litter, and show more generosity. We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting.”

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, involved three experiments, the first of which required participants to complete a series of office-based questionnaires.

Some of the participants completed these in a clean and organized office environment, while others completed the questionnaires in a messy, cluttered office space.

Following the questionnaires, the second experiment gave the participants the opportunity to donate to charity and choose a snack of either chocolate or an apple.

The study showed that those who were in a clean and tidy office environment were more likely to do what was expected of them compared to those in the messy office space. They donated more of their own money to charity and in most cases, chose the apple over the chocolate.

However, in the third experiment, which required the participants to develop new uses for ping pong balls, those working in the untidy office environment presented ideas that were rated more “interesting and creative” compared with those working in an organized environment.

Additionally, when participants were asked to choose between a new product and an established one, those in a messy room chose the novel idea, while those in the tidy office space preferred the established product.

Vohs says of the findings:

Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of – creativity.

Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

From these findings, the researchers plan to see whether these effects could transfer to a virtual environment, after preliminary findings suggest that the organization of webpages could result in similar behaviors.

Vohs adds:

“We are all exposed to various kinds of settings, such as in our office space, our homes, our cars, even on the Internet. Whether you have control over the tidiness of the environment or not, you are exposed to it and our research shows it can affect you.”