Broken windows are not necessarily a bad thing

‘Organised chaos’ is how Nigel described my writing and research process – a creative space where the unexpected and playful can exist alongside structure and direction. In many ways I feel like I’m conducting an experiment of sorts by fully engaging with how my thoughts appear and connect together – I’m investigating how thoughts and ideas are born as much as I am discovering new knowledge about Bohemianism through writing.

But Nigel could have been describing my life: my work desk often looks like a rainbow coloured filing cabinet has vomited all over it; in a corner of my bedroom, ‘the mound’ grows steadily, fed by clothes spat out of the ‘getting ready’ whirlwind I find myself caught in on an average morning; and I won’t delve into the details of the state of my car, or kitchen for that matter in the middle of a working week. It’s bad enough having to experience it the first time let alone write about it.

It’s safe to say that when I’m on the messy side of life, everything quickly descends into something resembling a quiet kind of hell centred on the mundane. When I most need or want something – the other earring of a pair, essential underwear, an important book, or bill that’s yet to be paid – it remains buried in the debris of my life, while other things, lost, ignored, useless and forgotten things surface from the mire and seem to plead for me to notice them.

But my life doesn’t always look as though it’s been chewed up and spat out of an enormous ‘disorganising’ machine. I do make the time and head space to tend to the living spaces of my life. When my knickknacks collected from near and distant places are safely back in their designated positions, and the surfaces of benches and floors are clearly showing, a sun begins to shine on everything and I can hardly remember the dinginess I was once forced to trawl through. The new reality, the orderly, clean, fresh room or surface, is the direct opposite to what was before: a mishmash of colours (and sometimes smells) brought about by a cluttered and unexpected array of things which are not where they normally should be.

How is this ebb and flow of mess and its nemesis, order, related to creativity? A google search for ‘Organised Chaos and Creativity’ revealed there is a general consensus that disorganisation and messiness is often an attribute of highly creative people. See the search results below:

The following article by Wray Herbert published on the Association for Psychological Science website (2013) shows how disorder – clutter and mess – is essential for highly creative thoughts to emerge.

broken windon

One of the most influential ideas about crime prevention to come out in recent years is something called the “broken windows theory.” According to this theory, small acts of deviance—littering, graffiti, broken windows—will, if ignored, escalate into more serious crime. In practice, this theory leads to zero tolerance of public disorder and petty crime. Both theory and practice have been embraced by some big city mayors, most notably Rudy Giuliani, who credited the strategy with significantly cutting serious crime in 1990s New York City.

The idea has been controversial from the start, for many reasons, but it does get some empirical support from psychological science. A growing body of research suggests that the human mind does like order and structure and rules. Indeed, cleanliness and tidiness have been shown to promote legal and moral action, while a messy environment appears to do the opposite.

But this idea may be a little too tidy, and some scientists are beginning to challenge it. If it were that simple, how should we explain the fact that order and disorder are both common states? Why hasn’t the human yearning for order, over the millennia, triumphed over messiness in society?

This was the point of departure for psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota. Vohs wondered if perhaps environmental order and disorder are both functional, activating different, but equally valuable, mindsets. Maybe what we disparage as messiness—maybe this physical state contributes to a varied world, and perhaps it’s variety that’s most important in shaping human thinking and action. She and her colleagues ran a couple experiments to test this provocative idea.

Vohs wanted first off to explore the effects of order and disorder on socially desirable behaviors, so in the first experiment she looked at healthy eating and charitable giving. These are both things that, by common agreement, are good. She recruited volunteers and, unknown to them, had some work in a tidy room and the others in a messy space. They filled out questionnaires that weren’t really relevant to the study, and afterward were given the opportunity to donate privately to charity—specifically, to help pay for toys and books that would be given to children. Then, as they were departing, they were offered the choice of an apple or chocolate.

The results were unambiguous. Those who had been working in an orderly workspace were more generous. Not only were they more likely to donate anything to the kids, collectively they donated more than twice as much money to the charity. They were also more likely to make the healthy food choice.

Okay, so this merely reinforces what’s been known—that an orderly environment leads to desirable and good action. But is there a downside to this mindset? In a second study, Vohs took a different tack and explored contexts in which messiness might lead to a socially desirable outcome. She figured that, since order promotes conventional values, maybe disorder promotes breaking with convention—the essence of creativity.

To study this possibility, she again had volunteers work in either a neat or a messy room. Volunteers completed the same kinds of filler work as before, followed by common a test of creativity. Specifically, they were told to come up with as many as ten new uses for ping pong balls, and their answers were scored by independent judges.

einstein’s office

The results confirmed what Vohs had predicted. As described in a forthcoming article in the journal Psychological Science, the volunteers who worked in the untidy room were much more creative overall, and they also produced more “highly creative” ideas. In other words, they were more likely to break away from tradition, order and convention in their thinking. In a third study, those in a messy environment were more likely to select an option labeled “new” over one labeled “classic”—further supporting the link between order and tradition, disorder and novel thinking.

Taken together, these findings challenge the well-entrenched view of order and disorder as too simplistic. It’s misleading to conclude that messiness promotes wild, harmful and morally suspect behavior, or that order leads to honesty and goodness. A more nuanced view would add that disorder also inspires breaking from tradition, which can lead to fresh insight, and that order is linked to playing it safe. Vohs concludes with the example of Albert Einstein, who famously quipped: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Wray Herbert’s blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in The Huffington Posnducive to creative thought, but some of the most creative thinkers have all favoured the messy side of life:

So my suspicions have been correct all along! I’m a creative genius!! But seriously, regarding the relationship between disorder and innovation, it can pay to be messy. Next time I tell someone that it’s because I’m ‘creative’ that my house or car or work desk looks like a bomb site, I’ll also refer them to the above study to bolster my argument.

Artist Francis Bacon certainly had no trouble working in his chaotic studio:

And Margaret Olley’s art studio lets disorder rule:

This photo of Margaret Olley’s art studio was taken by Greg Weight and appears on his website as part of his exhibition ‘See you tomorrow at 2, photographic studies from the studio of Margaret Olley’

How does all of this mess and disorder relate to my writing and research process? Through using a collage approach to building up content, and through engaging with the nature of ideas, I want to investigate the process of how the mind generates ideas by making connections between thoughts . So my method is going to be two pronged, incorporating equal parts of order and disorder – chaos can flourish and coexist with organisation.

Here are some more artists and their studios:

  1. Alexander Calder (/ˈkɔːldər/; July 22, 1898 – November 11, 1976) was an American sculptor who is best known for his innovative mobiles (kinetic sculptures powered by motors or air currents) that embrace chance in their aesthetic and his monumental public sculptures. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Calder

2) Pablo Picasso’s studio at Villa La Californie, Cannes 1956 (Pinterest)

3) James Rosenquist (November 29, 1933 – March 31, 2017) was an American artist and one of the protagonists in the pop art movement. Drawing from his background working in sign painting, Rosenquist’s pieces often explored the role of advertising and consumer culture in art and society, utilizing techniques he learned making commercial art to depict popular cultural icons and mundane everyday objects.[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Rosenquist

When I next look around at my living spaces in despair at all the mess, I’ll tell myself that for creative thinking to bloom, broken windows are not necessarily a bad thing.

Till next time dearest blog. I’ll leave you with the words and dulcet tones of Leonard Cohen…

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