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Build Your Career Office Life

Do Messy Desks Make For Selfish Workers?

Do Messy Desks Make For Selfish Workers?
Credit: Rawpixel/Shutterstock

Keeping your office neat and clean could help keep your employees on their best behavior, new research suggests.

Although feelings of disgust can increase acts of bad behavior, such as lying and cheating, cleanliness can help people return to ethical behavior, according to a study set to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Process.

Disgust is a protection mechanism, said Vikas Mittal, one of the study's authors and a professor at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business. When people feel disgusted, he said, they tend to remove themselves from a situation and have a greater instinct to protect themselves.

"People become focused on 'self,' and they're less likely to think about other people," Mittal said in a statement. "Small cheating starts to occur: If I'm disgusted and more focused on myself and I need to lie a little bit to gain a small advantage, I'll do that."

However, the researchers found that cleansing behaviors can diminish the self-serving effects of disgust. Creating conditions to diminish people's disgust can cut down on unethical behavior, Mittal said.

"One way to mitigate disgust is to make people think about something clean," he said. "If you can make people think of cleaning products — for example, Kleenex or Windex — the emotion of disgust is mitigated, so the likelihood of cheating also goes away."

The findings can help bosses and organizational leaders understand the ethical and unethical impacts of emotions on decision making, Mittal said. [Clean It Up! Why Office Clutter is Bad For Business ]

"At the basic level, if you have environments that are cleaner, if you have workplaces that are cleaner, people should be less likely to feel disgusted," Mittal said. "If there is less likelihood to feel disgusted, there will be a lower likelihood that people need to be self-focused, and there will be a higher likelihood for people to cooperate with each other."

For the study, 600 people participated in experiments designed to evoke thoughts of disgust. In one experiment, participants evaluated consumer products — such as antidiarrheal medicine, diapers, feminine care pads, cat litter and adult incontinence products — while in another, they were asked to write essays about their most disgusting memory. In the third experiment, participants watched a disgusting scene from the movie "Trainspotting."

Once the participants were effectively disgusted, they engaged in experiments that judged their willingness to lie and cheat for financial gain. The study's authors found that people who experienced disgust consistently engaged in self-interested behaviors at a significantly higher rate than those who did not.

In another set of experiments, the researchers had the disgusted participants evaluate cleaning products, such as disinfectants and body washes. The study's authors discovered that participants who evaluated the cleaning products didn't engage in deceptive behaviors any more than those in the neutral emotion condition.

"Small things can trigger specific emotions, which can deeply affect people's decision making," Mittal said. "The question is how to make people more self-aware and more thoughtful about the decision-making process."

The study was co-authored by Karen Page Winterich, an associate professor of marketing at Pennsylvania State University, and Andrea Morales, a professor of marketing at Arizona State University.

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.