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Orderliness plays a role in work performance, Fox researcher finds

January 27th, 2015

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Photo of Dr. Boyoun (Grace) Chae
Dr. Boyoun (Grace) Chae

A professor from Temple University’s Fox School of Business found inspiration for her research in a rather unconventional place.

Inspired by the television show, Hoarders, Dr. Boyoun (Grace) Chae and co-author Dr. Rui (Juliet) Zhu found during a three-year research study that efficiency and persistence suffered among people whose work conditions were untidy.

Harvard Business Review recently featured the findings of their research study, which was originally published by the Journal of Consumer Research in April 2014.

Hoarders, that’s where the idea started from,” said Chae, Assistant Professor of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at the Fox School. “It’s a critical issue in society. Think about why people really cannot throw things away. I think it’s a reflection on peoples’ preoccupation with what they have. People buy products and they have control over what they consume, but, ironically, people are overwhelmed with their possessions.”

Chae and Zhu, of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, China, exposed 100 test subjects to one of two work settings – either an organized desk, with papers and folders in order and shelves with properly arranged items, or an unorganized desk, with items strewn about carelessly.

Then, they conducted multiple tests during their research study. Among them was the persistence task, during which test subjects were required “to trace a geometric figure on a piece of paper without retracing any lines and without lifting the pencil from the paper,” they wrote. In their paper, Chae and Zhu describe the test as unsolvable. Subjects in the orderly office were one-and-a-half times more likely to stick with the task before quitting, Chae said. Those in the cleaner room attempted the challenge for an average of 1,117 seconds, while those in a disorganized setting gave up after an average of 669 seconds.

Other tests included: the stroop task, which measured the speed with which subjects could accurately respond to complex visual stimuli on a computer screen; and the willingness-to-pay task, another self-regulation measure which gauged the purchase intention of a subject with various products. Chae said subjects in the cleaner office responded to visual stimuli 10 to 15 percent more quickly than those in a more-chaotic room, “a quite significant finding,” she said.

“Writing a paper for a journal is purely academic, so to have our research appear in Harvard Business Review was a way for our research study and findings to be consumed by a much-wider audience,” Chae said. “We were delighted to take their call.”

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