A scientist’s guide to life: spring cleaning © Gabriel Silveira

A scientist’s guide to life: how to master spring cleaning

Should you bust out the duster, or have a cuppa instead? Behavioural scientist Kathleen Vohs tells us about the science of tidiness.

Should I bother with the spring cleaning?

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It depends on how much you care about the effects that cleaning can have. We’ve done research into this. In one study, people completed tasks in tidy or untidy rooms, then had the option to donate to charity.

We found that those in tidy rooms were more generous. Cleaning seems to make you more likely to act in a way that is more upstanding and consistent with social norms.

Can I still get psychological benefits of cleaning if I pay someone else to do it?

Absolutely. You don’t have to be the person that does all the tidying in order for your behaviour to change. A neat house can have an effect on everyone in the household.

My teenage daughter argues that she can’t help being messy. Should I let her off tidying her room?

Some people are habitually messy, but that’s not always a bad thing.

In another study, we had our subjects sit in clean or messy rooms while dreaming up new uses for ping pong balls.

We found that people from the messy rooms were more creative and innovative with their ideas.

Need to know:

  1. People with messy rooms tend to be more creative.
  2. Don’t less the mess take over. Household chaos can slow you down.
  3. Tidiness = generosity.

Cleaning with a smile © Numatic

Now I have an excuse for the state of my house. But when should I worry that things are too messy?

Speaking from a personal perspective, you should start to worry if the mess is interfering with your ability to get things done in an efficient manner.

There’s a concept called ‘household chaos.’ Suppose your two shoes are never in the same place. If you have to run around and find the missing shoe, it could cause problems in your everyday life. That’s when things start to get too messy.

The flip side is that for some people, the mental effort of keeping their shoes in one place is costlier than having to run around and find them when they are needed.

What do you think of Japanese ‘organising guru’ Marie Kondo?

What I find interesting is the cultural response to her. People like her have been around for decades, but why has she been elevated to such prominence?

We know from anthropology and sociology that people associate cleanliness and order with morality and ethics. So much of the world seems to be chaotic and unstructured and muddy, that I wonder if we are thirsty for something that speaks to a moral structure.

How do I know if I’m too tidy?

If you find you’ve thrown things away that you later realise you need, or if being too tidy gets in the way of enjoying social interactions.

I remember going to a colleague’s house that was spotless, with white carpets and a white couch, and I found that I just couldn’t relax.

How do I know what to get rid of?

Try ‘cleaning purgatory’. Before I throw out anything that I think I may regret, I put it in a holding bin. It sits there for a month. If I don’t go back to it then it has to go.

Kathleen Vohs is a behavioural scientist at the University of Minnesota.

Why do we associate citrus smells with being clean? © Getty Images

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