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In Defense of My Messy Desk

Researchers from the Netherlands report a disordered environment can inspire people to set, and achieve, goals.
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(Photo: Michael Coté/Flickr)

(Photo: Michael Coté/Flickr)

We'll soon be moving into new offices at Pacific Standard, and that has forced me to deal with my disorganized, document-draped desk. My younger colleagues, who grew up with the Internet and live in a largely paperless world, no doubt look at my workspace with puzzled amusement.

But recent research suggests there is a method to my messiness. I may not have realized it, but it seems all that clutter serves as something of a catalyst.

"When environmental cues trigger an experience of disorder ... people are more attracted to clear, well-defined goals, and motivated to attain them," write Bob Fennis and Jacob Wiebenga of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. This dynamic, they add, is "driven by the need to reaffirm perceptions of order."

In other words, the researchers argue in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, we have a basic need for order and structure, and if we don't find it in our immediate environment, we are driven to create it somewhere. Setting (and achieving) goals fulfills that role quite nicely.

The researchers demonstrate this dynamic in a series of studies, the first of which featured 43 Dutch citizens who were approached on the street in a shopping district. Participants took a brief survey about the "reward programs" merchants use to attract customers.

I may not have realized it, but it seems all that clutter serves as something of a catalyst.

They indicated their level of agreement or disagreement (on a one-to-six scale) with two statements: "I prefer to participate in a program that clearly indicates the total number of points required to redeem for a reward," and "I get an unpleasant feeling from the crowdedness" of the busy, store-filled neighborhood.

"Participants with higher experienced disorder felt more attracted to a reward program with a clear and specific endpoint," the researchers report.

The concept of a disordered environment was introduced more subtly in another study, which featured 90 Dutch citizens recruited online.

Participants "were exposed to four pictures of scenes depicting a disordered store environment (disorganized shelves and cloth racks), an ordered store environment (nicely organized shelves and cloth racks), or neutral pictures which were used as controls," Fennis and Wiebenga write. "These scenes functioned as the website's background (and) were slightly grayed out."

The researchers add that the images were never referred to, and "the concepts of order and disorder were never explicitly brought to participants' attention."

All were asked to imagine they were participating in a reward program, and had collected half the points needed to receive the gift of their choice from a retailer's catalog. Participants indicated how motivated they were to collect additional points and receive their reward. They also responded to statements indicating their personal need for order, such as "I find that establishing a consistent routine enables me to enjoy life more."

The key result: Those who had seen images of the messy environment were more motivated to do whatever was necessary to receive their gift.

"These results indicate that a disordered environment prompts increased motivation in goal pursuit," the researchers write. Subtle visual cues indicating disorder "led to a higher need for order," which in turn motivated participants to work toward a goal.

The psychological explanation for this is quite straightforward. Many studies have found that "a perceived threat to order and structure prompts responses aimed at regaining a sense of order by converting a fuzzy world into a more understandable and predictable one," the researchers note. "Goals and goal pursuit provide a sense of order because they specify concrete agents, means and ends—the building blocks of a perception of order and structure."

So if you're having trouble setting—or achieving—goals for yourself, you might want to try cluttering up your work space a bit. The mess may be motivational.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.