Matters of Opinion

Finally Proven by Science: Messy People Are More Creative (but didn’t you know it all along?)

messy Are you a messy person or a neat person? Do you make your bed everyday with tight hospital corners or just smooth out the blankets? Does your couch, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, resemble bleacher seats at Fenway after a twi-night double header? Have you stopped noticing the cobwebs on the ceiling rafters? If you can answer YES to any or all of these questions you qualify as messy. But don’t take offense. That may be a good thing, at least according to the New York Times, in which a recent article says that messy people are not only more creative than their more fastidious counterparts, but also more likely to break with convention and try new things. There’s some good news for you orderly clean beans, too. Apparently you’re more likely to be good Samaritans and follow a healthy diet. Well, I say bully for you, and you probably also iron your underpants.

Today I’m talking about us creative types, people who use their cars for the same purpose women use their pocketbooks and whose desks, even if they’re located in a cubicle, always seem to look like they’re next to an open window. We know that clutter makes our minds race with brazen ideas and take intellectual risks, or at least I know that now. Before I read the article, I just thought I was a slob.

The article cites an experiment by psychologists at the University of Minnesota who assumed that since order and disorder are both prevalent in nature and culture, that each environment confers advantages for different outcomes. As you might suppose they thought orderly environments lead people toward tradition and convention, and disorderly environments encouraged just the opposite, breaking with formality.

They devised three experiments to prove their point. In each experiment the subjects were asked to sit in identical rooms—identical except that one was neat as a pin and the other looked as if it had hosted a fraternity party. The same problems were presented to the subjects in each experiment, choosing healthy snacks versus junk food in the first; coming up with inventive uses for ping pong balls in the second; and in the third, a choice between a classic fruit smoothie or one advertised as more exotic. The results of all three experiments showed that those people surrounded by mess overwhelming thought outside the box and had cravings for fun foods.

Now I would be the first to question any so-called experiment that bases its findings on ping pong ball ice trays and guava kiwi smoothies. In fact, I’ll admit to skepticism about psychology experiments in general. Almost all of them are performed on students in American and European universities, for one thing, and according to an article in Slate magazine, this means the subjects are weird, that’s W-E-I-R-D, which is an acronym for westernized, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic…in comparison other human beings around the world. A much-publicized experiment on early sexual relations, for instance, filtered out anyone who had been sexually abused or homosexual. Not exactly a universal sampling.

But I do chose to embrace this experiment because it speaks to a running theme in my life. Which is…well…a messy house.

To whit. My wife and I are both writers. We both love gardening…an activity that turns our kitchen into a working farmhouse.

We have five cats…meaning we spend more time on litter boxes and hairballs than polishing the silver. Our offices are forests of books and snail mail, printers, cords, computers.

Both of us would much rather do our writing than vacuum, dust, scrub, sweep, or polish. We lived together for six years before we got married because neither of us wanted to be the wife. We dutifully hire people to come in and clean the house, but like a newly mowed field it begins to revert to its natural woodland state within hours.

It’s not that I don’t like clean, quiet, uncluttered places like Buddhist centers and museums. They’re great to meditate in. They’re great to look at paintings in. I love meeting friends for drinks in a swank midtown hotel bar and browsing the stacks in a college library.

But none of those places inspire my creativity. For that I need a cat on my lap, a stack of newspaper clippings, a few empty coffee cups, open books, a lot of pillows on the floor, oh… and cobwebs. There’s nothing like cobwebs to really get my juices flowing.

In fact, the word messy is archaic. It’s been replaced it with creative. You don’t have to believe me, it’s in the New York Times.

I’m Ira Wood…and that’s my opinion.

Matters of Opinion are Ira Wood’s short, personal, often rather odd takes on current events. They wrap up the WOMR News on most Fridays at 12:30 PM and are available as podcasts HERE. Feel free to email Ira to tell him what you think.