Mind & Body

Studies Show a Messy Office Sends the Wrong Signals

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An extremely messy personal space may lead people to believe the owner of that space is more neurotic and less agreeable, according to a new study.

Psychologists explored the degree of messiness in one's workspace and how it affects perceptions of the owner's personality. Their findings appear in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

In three experiments, researchers randomly assigned about 160 participants to sit in a researcher's office that was clean and uncluttered, or in another office that was either "somewhat" or "very" messy.

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You Be the Judge

The researchers decorated all offices identically to suggest that they belonged to a male researcher. The offices included various personal items, such as a baseball cap hanging on a door hook, a cup containing candy, a baby photo, and science books and academic journals in a bookcase.

In the neat office (office A), papers were neatly stacked on the desk, books and journals were upright on the bookshelves, file drawers had typewritten labels, and all garbage was in the wastebasket.

The "somewhat" messy office (office B in the first experiment) had books tilted over on the shelves, a textbook and papers lying on the floor, and a wall clock an hour off. The "very" messy office (office B in the second and third experiments) appeared even dirtier, more disorganized, and had increased clutter.

Participants tried to guess the researcher's personality based on the office's appearance — rating the person's extraversion (social), agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. In each experiment, participants thought that the office B researcher (messy office) was less conscientious than the office A researcher (organized office).

"When there are cues related to less cleanliness, order, organization and more clutter in an owner's primary territory, perceivers' ascribe lower conscientiousness to the owner, whether that owner is a worker in the real world (office), a job-seeker (apartment), a student (bedroom), or a researcher at a university (lab office)," says lead author Terrence Horgan, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan's Flint campus.

Everyday Evaluations

In everyday life, if people think that a person might be careless, cranky, and uncaring because his/her office is very messy, then these impressions could subsequently impact how — or even whether — they decide to deal with him/her in the future, either on a personal or professional basis, the researchers say.

In experiments 2 and 3, participants also thought that the office B researcher was less agreeable and more neurotic than the office A researcher. The messier offices led to some participants thinking the owner possessed one or more negative personality traits.

The researchers say that from the perspective of perceivers, high neuroticism, low conscientiousness, and low agreeableness could signal potentially undesirable qualities in an employee. The bottom line: perceivers' impressions of targets matter in terms of how they subsequently treat them.

"Once trait information about a target becomes activated in perceivers' minds, either consciously or unconsciously, that information can subsequently affect how they process information about, the types of questions they ask of, and how they behave toward the target, possibly bringing out the very trait information that they expected to see from the target in the first place," says study coauthor Sarah Dyszlewski, a research technician in the psychology department at the University of Michigan.

Source: University of Michigan

This article is republished from Futurity under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Written by Jared Wadley from the University of Michigan January 4, 2019

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