This article was inspired by Tim Harford’s talk on “The Importance of Being Messy”, an Intelligence Squared Debate, 6th Dec. 2016

Economist Tim Harford puts forth a compelling case to put our autopilot selves on hold occasionally, and embrace the unexpected. While we derive comfort and efficiency from organization and structure, Harford proposes that structure doesn’t always help us get the best out of our abilities, that randomness and chaos force us to become the best versions of ourselves in extenuating circumstances – such as pianist Keith Jarrett’s concert in Cologne, where he gave one of his most powerful performances on an untuned rehearsal piano. Oppenheimer and colleagues (2010) carried out a study on ‘desirable difficulties’ as mechanisms to improve exam performance of students. They found that changing the font of the study material to something relatively uncommon or difficult (think comic sans ms or Ar Decode) helped those students score better than the ones who read the material in more typical fonts like Times New Roman. ‘Complex’ fonts increased attention and slowed their pace of reading, thus leading to more in-depth retention of the material.

Another interesting manifestation of this was found in London underground commutes, when several sections of the underground were closed during a strike. When researchers examined the Oyster card histories of certain commuters who normally travelled by the same regular route (Larcom et al., 2017), and thus were forced to take up alternative routes during the strike, they found that a sizeable number of commuters stuck to their alternative routes, even after the lines were back up working normally. It seems the shutdown had forced them to identify equally efficient or better routes, and they found that the new alternative routes were actually faster than their regular ones. Social psychologist Katharine Philips carried out a study where a team of either 4 friends or 3 friends and a stranger had to solve a murder mystery. Despite the team with the stranger reporting greater awkwardness and lesser enjoyment in doing the task, they performed significantly better at solving the mystery than the team consisting of only friends.

The common thread among the studies finds that any kind of uncertainty forces us to improvise and adapt, giving rise to innovative solutions or perspectives, which we may not ordinarily think about if we are always trying to do things the optimum or tried-and-tested way. In fact, mess is what Harford feels was Trump’s primary weapon in dealing with his opponents: spew out controversial statements about them and ethnic communities so fast that his opponents are left in the dust, wondering which remark they should tackle or respond to first.

How does this help us though? As most of us know, science can never really ‘prove’ anything, but it does help us take tiny steps in understanding the actions of ourselves and others better. So perhaps the next time you’re planning a journey to your friend’s place on the other side of London, don’t rely on Citymapper and see whether your instincts help you figure out the best route instead. Or switch up your usual library spot and sit in a place where you don’t normally prefer to. Maybe it’ll help you give that very poetic end to your essay, which we all know, is one of life’s eternal struggles.

This article was written by Tanuja Kate. She is a member of the Bugle Team.


Fortune favors the Bold (and the Italicized ): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomeshttps: //

The benefits of forced experimentation: striking evidence from the London Underground network:

Diverse groups and information sharing: The effects of congruent ties (Katherine W Phillips et al.):

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