We tend to divide the world into two types of people—neat freaks or slobs. We assume neat freaks are organized, goal oriented winners who get things done, get up early and make their beds with envelope-corner precision.
On the flip side, we think of slobs as disorganized, lazy slackers who lack motivation and self-discipline. In some cases, their morals are called into question.
Is there any truth to these assumptions? Perhaps a morsel. Studies do show how our surroundings influence behavior.
When researchers placed flyers on car windshields in two different kinds of parking lots – one pristine and clean, the other filled with litter – they found that test participants were more likely to throw the flyers on the ground in the litter-filled lot than the clean one. Meanwhile, those individuals in the clean lot maintained the cleanliness and threw the flyers away.
For another study, researchers divided participants into two groups. Half was sent to a tidy office, the other half was sent to a messy office. After the participants were asked to fill out forms for 10 minutes they were offered chocolate bars or apples on their way out. Those who had been in the orderly office were twice as likely to take the apple.
Both studies support the ‘Broken Window Theory’ – that even slight disorder or neglect can lead to poor choices and reduced self-discipline. In other words, chaos begets chaos.
If clean spaces spur healthy choices and responsible behavior, are messy spaces all bad? No. Disorderly environments have an upside.
When two groups of test participants were instructed to generate new uses for Ping Pong balls, the group in the cluttered environment came up with far more creative ideas than those in the tidy space.
People in a messy space are more likely to try new things and explore new solutions. They are unafraid to break free from tradition and feel less tethered to do things in a conventional way. People in clean spaces make healthier choices and adhere to social norms and traditions.
So if you need to think outside the box, a little disorder might go a long way.