If you don’t care that your desk is messy, you should. Or at least, that’s what a recent study from the University of Michigan tells us.
To figure out to what degree the messiness of an office affected someone’s perception of the office holder, three researchers took two empty offices and dressed them with office supplies and personal effects to make it appear as though it was the office of a male researcher. The two offices were made identical, except that one was neat and tidy while the other looked like a sty, with candy wrappers on the desk, papers strewn about and clutter in every direction. Then, the researchers brought in about 160 participants to ask them what they thought the personalities were of the office holder.
As it turned out, the effects were so strong that they even surprised the researchers. I spoke to Terrence G. Horgan, a psychology professor who co-authored the study along with Noelle K. Herzog and Sarah M. Dyszlewski, who told me that he expected people to perceive a lack of conscientiousness from the office holder (as previous studies had suggested the same thing), but he didn’t predict such an overwhelming result. “I didn’t expect the rating to be so heavily weighed in that direction,” admits Horgan.
In addition to the person’s conscientiousness, the participants were asked to assess the person’s sociability, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness, and again, there were strong results saying that the messy office holder was believed to be both less agreeable and more neurotic.
As for why people think this way, Horgan says that future research would have to examine the thought processes of the participants, but speculates that a few different factors feed into this. For one, the messy office holder had some candy wrappers left on his desk, which may imply to the participant that the person has trouble controlling their emotions, Horgan explains. It also implies that they don’t have the time — or won’t take the time — to fix up their place. This is also where the conscientiousness comes into play, as the visitor may feel unwelcome in a space where the office holder didn’t bother to tidy things up before anyone came to visit.
The clutter, too, may be a factor in making people feel uncomfortable, something I learned when I looked into how therapists decorate their offices. As environmental psychologist Sally Augustin explained to me, humans always instinctively survey their surroundings. Clutter leads to discomfort because the greater the visual complexity of a space, the more it needs surveying, which can be stress inducing. This trait dates way back to our animal ancestors — just as a jungle full of predators may stress out something lower on the food chain, some dude’s messy office will also bug you out.
Now, it’s important to note that this research only points to first impressions. As the offices were dressed and the office holder didn’t really exist, Horgan explains that these perceptions would only be the case if someone saw the space first and met you later, so it’s not yet clear if your messy office or desk could affect those who actually know you. But it might! “Perceptions matter,” Horgan confirmed several times throughout our conversation, explaining that if people view you as having these traits (being less agreeable, more neurotic, etc.) due to your unkempt area, they may treat you as if you do. In turn, this might actually bring out those qualities in you — all in all, a pointless and preventable vicious circle.
In short, it may be time to quit wallowing in your own filth, wash those mold-sprouting coffee mugs and scrape the crusted food off your keyboard. Who knows? Maybe your colleagues will start inviting you out for drinks again.