Scatty people are more creative, study suggests

Bags unattended: David Cameron’s official red box, as spotted by a fellow passenger.

The UK Prime Minister’s occasional lapses in memory and organisation are generally greeted by a mixture of sympathy and ridicule. But new research shows that messy people may be smarter.

Do you ever leave class without your bag? Forget where you left your keys, or come to school with the wrong books? If so, you are in illustrious company: UK Prime Minister David Cameron has proved that he too is capable of headline-grabbing attacks of absent-mindedness.

The latest example came to light last weekend, when a passenger sharing a train with the British leader snapped a photograph which appeared to show his official red briefcase containing confidential documents unattended on a table with the key in the lock. A Government spokesperson insisted that security was on hand, but newspapers were quick to label Cameron ‘dozy’ and accuse him of negligence.

Previous evidence of Cameron’s forgetfulness is even more surprising. Last year he accidentally left his young daughter in a pub; more recently, he sparked a 30-mile dash by policemen when he set off on a holiday to Ibiza without his passport.

Despite some press attempts to drum up outrage about Cameron’s mental slips, many people have remained staunchly sympathetic. One columnist insisted that his forgetfulness was ‘more endearing than off-putting’, and absent minds nationwide will no doubt agree.

But some go even further in their defence of scattiness. Far from being a sign of stupidity, new research suggests, outward mess may be a sign of great things occurring beneath the surface.

Cleanliness and hygiene have long been associated with a well-ordered mind. Psychologists have found that the smell of cleaning products raises people’s moral standards, and that messiness makes people more morbid and confused.


But now a new study has added a caveat to this: while organised people might have more ordered minds, untidiness can actually increase creativity. Surrounded by mild mess, participants in an experiment were far more likely to try new things and choose novelty over tradition.

Similarly, a study published in March appeared to show that people whose minds tended to wander performed better in arithmetic and recalling facts.


Order in the chaos

Hopelessly disorganised people the world over will respond with defiant glee: mess and forgetfulness are not a sign of sloth, they say, but an indication that our minds are fixed on higher things. Strict order is the enemy of free thought, and the stereotype of the absent-minded professor was true all along!

Delusional nonsense, respond sticklers for cleanliness and order. If you must disappear into the clouds now and again to gather your thoughts, that’s fine – but without focus and discipline your precious creativity will bear no fruit. Of course mess isn’t evidence of genius: at best it’s an unfortunate side effect.

You Decide

  1. Is being messy always a bad trait?
  2. Is organisation or creativity a more important quality in a political leader? What about for other professions?

Activities

  1. Think of someone who you consider to be as a creative genius and do some research into their personal habits. Were / are they neat and ordered or scatty and forgetful?
  2. Design a psychology experiment to test the link between mess and creativity.

Some People Say...

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.’ Friedrich Nietzsche”

What do you think?

Q & A

Aha! Now I have an answer whenever I get told off for forgetting my homework!
It doesn’t quite work like that. Even if being a little messy or dreamydoes sometimes aid creativity, that doesn’t excuse you from focusing on the things you need to get done. Nobody ever achieved anything worthwhile without determination and persistent hard work.
If messy people are creative, does that mean clean people aren’t?
These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, just general trends – and disputed ones at that. Geniuses can be messy (like Einstein, who evangelically believed in an untidy desk) or obsessively orderly (like Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote down every thought he had on an index card). It takes all kinds.

Word Watch

Red briefcase
Top-ranking British politicians traditionally carry their official documents in red ministerial suitcases known as ‘red boxes’ with a vintage design dating back to Victorian times. The most famous of these is the ‘Budget Box’ carried by the Chancellor of the Exchequer when giving his annual statement to Parliament.
Ibiza
This island off the coast of Spain is best known as a party destination, but David Cameron wasn’t going clubbing: away from the main towns the island also harbours some famously beautiful beaches and ancient towns.
Novelty
Creativity is of course very difficult to measure, but one way psychologists get around that is by observing participant’s openness to new ideas. That link is fairly well established.

Subjects

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