What Messiness Does to Our Brain
How changing the environment changes who you are
Here’s a piece common wisdom: Some people are simply messy. Put a messy person in a tidy room, and that room will quickly clutter up. Put a tidy person in a messy room, and things will magically become organized.
There’s a problem with this bit of wisdom, though. It’s too simple. We once thought the same about smiling as well. Happy people smile, sure, but psychological research has clearly shown that smiling can also make us happy. The effect goes both ways.
For example: put a person in a lab coat, and they will tend to perform better at a math quiz, than if you put them in a fireman’s outfit. In a fireman’s outfit, of course, they would tend to run faster and have more stamina. What we wear tells our brain who it is supposed to be, and for some reason, it just does it. So what does this mean?
Since designing environments is a lot of what we do at The Insight Company, let’s try and understand it.
A group of researchers randomly placed their participants in either a cluttered office space, or a clean and tidy one. After spending some time in that space, they asked their participants some questions. Here are the results.
When offered a snack, participants who spent time in a tidy office, were more likely to choose an apple for a snack, over chocolate. Cluttered office participants tended to choose the chocolate. A mess, it seems, adds to our mental stress, which lowers our impulse control.
Tidy office participants were more likely to donate to charity than cluttered office participants. That being said, cluttered office goers tended to be more creative. They would be less conservative and tended to deviate more from the norm.
Just to be clear, participants did not choose which office they wanted to spend time in. The assignments were random. the time spent in the office, cluttered or tidy, physically changed participant’s preferences. At least for that day.
What It All Means
In behavioral design, we don’t always get to choose the environment in which people interact with our products. Environments, however, are more than just the room in which the product is used.
Online, we may prefer a clean and simple user interface for financial products. A bank might wish to promote conservative saving and spending by emphasizing the tidiness of its interface. When customers reach the ‘Loans’ section, however, they might prefer people to be more impulsive. Messing things up a bit.
An art gallery, on the other hand, physical or online, would do well to throw some stuff on the floor and forget to do the dishes for a couple of days. That’s how you get people in the mood for art. If they want to sell something, on the other hand, a tidy room is a charitable room.
A clean and tidy car will likely promote more responsible driving, while a cluttered fast food chain might prompt its customers to forget their diets for a little while. Design studios thrive in clutter, while banks thrive on tidiness.
Since we design digital UX and use behavioral economics’ nudges in the real world, we’ve seen plenty of examples of each case. In a cafeteria, simply ordering the buffet from left to right (healthy and unhealthy respectively), will increase healthy food consumption. Adding too much order to a social network interface will lead to a drop in engagement.
These are the places where behavioral science gives conventional UX and design a leg up. It’s Where the irrational brain meets products and places. It’s where The Insight Company Lives.
Till next time.
*Image by Ricardo Viana