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Admit it: have you ever made a character judgment on the basis of a neat or messy desk or house? We all notice habits of tidiness or untidiness and then jump to conclusions about moral traits and flaws – he’s a slob, she’s a bit OCD.
It’s not too far-fetched to think that how we keep our environment both reflects and moulds our state of mind. But, depending on which way you lean, you’ll have a different, potentially self-serving, perspective. If you’re tidy, you’re likely to think that a messy environment is a sign of a messy mind, and that clearing up is the only way forward. If you’re untidy, you’ll be more prone to believing that a certain amount of chaos is part and parcel of the creative process, and that this is hampered by being too keen to put things away in neat piles.
Trivial though they may seem, these things matter. People thrive in different conditions. Some are genuinely stifled by excessive tidiness while others feel oppressed by mess to the point where they cease to be able to function.
Away from the extreme ends of the spectrum, where people’s habits are likely to cause them problems, there’s no real reason why you shouldn’t suit yourself and leave dirty socks on the floor or neatly colour-code your books. Until, that is, you start sharing your living space with someone who objects to it. Tidiness can then become a real battleground.
Accusing others of just being obsessive or slobbish is not helpful. Better to move away from the cartoon terms we’re liable to adopt in an argument, and start by accepting both your own and the other person’s modus operandi. Beyond that it’s a matter of good old give-and-take: adapting a bit here, making more of an effort there, but also asking yourself how far it’s reasonable to expect others to conform to your standards. There is, alas, no neat solution to the problem of tidiness.
How much the state of your surroundings reflects the state of your mind is somewhat moot. Research published last month by psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs and her team at the University of Minnesota supported an association between keeping a tidy desk and behaviours such as healthy eating, generosity and conventionality. However, mess seemed to provide a more fertile ground for originality and creativity.
Such findings are of little practical use because our thinking and working styles are so individual that what works for others is irrelevant. When it comes to tidiness of thought, however, ideals may not be so idiosyncratic.
The whole project of rational enquiry can be seen as the attempt to bring greater order to our understanding of the world. In place of unconnected, ad hoc explanations of how things work – such as the idea that objects are made of matter but minds are not – we seek unifying explanations that leave as few loose ends as possible. Similarly, we want our moral values to cohere, since if they are just a loose collection of acquired prejudices, we risk becoming hypocrites with no justification for what we commend or denounce. Mental untidiness would therefore seem to be just lackadaisical inconsistency.
However, just as lovers of well-kept homes can be obsessively fastidious, so seekers after intellectual rigour can push orderliness too far. The messiness of the world places limits on how neat our thinking about it should be, especially when it comes to ethics. Anyone who portrays a disputed moral issue – Palestine, fossil fuel use, executive pay – as black and white has allowed the clarity of their convictions to obscure the opacity of the truth. The same is true for many more practical concerns. There is rarely a simple solution for a life in a rut, for example. Rather, problematic issues need to be identified and dealt with one by one, usually each with uncertain results.
In our homes and offices, we can be as neat or as messy as we wish and others can put up with. But although we should not tolerate intellectual sloppiness, in our thinking we make the world tidier than it is at our peril.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@shrink&sage.com