In a small room at the University of British Columbia, students wearing headphones are listening to noise. No, it's not an indie band's shred solo blasting through an iPod. The students are participating in an experiment at the school's Psychophysics and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, and the noise consists of random static generated by a computer. The question at hand: how badly does a scratchy cacophony interfere with thought?
The researchers are finding, in fact, that the noise improves the workings of the students' brains. And that's a result backed up by dozens of studies. It may seem counterintuitive, but the human mind—and a lot of other things, as it turns out—often work better not when they're neat and highly ordered, but rather when they operate in a messier fashion. That principle may apply not only to how we live and work, but also to how people around the world deal with regional instability, terrorism and natural disasters.
You can't open a magazine, turn on the TV or read a business book without hearing from an army of gurus and pundits presenting us with step-by-step recipes for getting things straightened up, put in order and planned out, whether it's our bedrooms, our careers or our foreign policies. But this pervasive bias toward maximum organization, order and neatness is often irrational and ineffective, typically causing more problems than it solves. A certain amount of mess and disorder is usually not the terrible thing we make it out to be, and in many cases it actually improves things. Our failure to recognize this simple truth leads us astray in all sorts of ways, big and small.
Science backs up the notion that mess has gotten a bad rap, starting with something you learned in high-school physics: anything you do increases the universe's entropy—that is, disorder. In other words, messiness isn't the sorry wage of weak character or neglect, it's the inseparable companion of constructive action. There are only two ways to minimize disorder: don't do much, or spend lots of energy constantly restoring order instead of spending it on something potentially much more useful.
Today thousands of scientific papers are published each year on stochastic resonance, a phenomenon by which adding disorder to a system makes it work better. Stochastic resonance turns up in climate change, chemical reactions and electronic circuits, but where it really plays a starring role is in the function of brain cells, which turn out to be lousy with useful noise in just about every creature from crayfish up to humans. The University of British Columbia lab, run by cognitive neuroscientist Lawrence Ward, has shown that people can be better at recognizing images and sounds when they're exposed to random background noise. Toyota has funded research at the lab that has shown how such noise could help drivers spot an onrushing car. "As the noise level increases, subjects do a better job of shifting their focus to a new location," says Ward.
Randomness, disorder and mess can be beneficial in more general ways. Consider messy desks. Most of us have one, and though we often feel guilty about it, studies show that they are highly effective tools. The piles that build up on a desk contain all sorts of clues about priorities: newer and more important information lands higher up in piles and closer by, and piles can vary by subject, urgency and chronology in ways that mirror the quirky, complex, messy ways in which we work and think. People with neat desks, on the other hand, have to spend time processing documents that the rest of us put aside, shuffling papers in and out of files, and throwing out stuff that they sometimes end up needing. Excavating through piles can lead to the fortuitous discovery of documents that had been forgotten, and to connections between documents that would never have been made if they had been filed, containerized or chucked.
How does this play out at the level of societies and international relations? If a nation has an especially strong, irrational bias toward order, it can follow that—just like office neat freaks frowning at messy cubicle owners—it will see less-ordered societies as defective and crying out for intervention. Two of the most order-loving societies in the world are Germany, where jaywalkers are berated by passersby and messiness is so unthinkable that there isn't even a unique word for it, and Japan, where people can be evicted from their homes for failing to sort their trash into 44 categories.
Although the United States is a moderately messy nation, prizing diversity and tolerating political conflict within its borders, its leaders have always been made uneasy by turmoil or disorder elsewhere, causing them to pursue "stability" in other nations, often at high cost. That's typical of the way people look at messiness—it's someone else's mess that always seems most problematic. "Achieving stability has been the dominant goal of American foreign policy from the 19th century forward," says Victor Silverman, a history professor at Pomona College in California. The drive for stability, Silverman notes, has over the decades led the United States to military and other interventions in Central America, Asia and the Middle East, usually with an eye to quelling a chaotic situation and leaving behind an orderly, if heavy-handed, regime. "That goal is actually counterproductive," he says. "The identification of the U.S. with repressive governments is one of the key things that has inflamed anti-American feelings around the world." Not to mention that, as with the homes one sees meticulously neatened by professional organizers on TV shows, nations tend to eventually slip back into their more naturally messy states.
Most of us tend to fool ourselves into thinking that through vision and careful planning we can direct the course of our careers and lives, though divorce and employee-turnover rates strongly suggest otherwise. Business executives in particular are often committed to strategic planning intended to lay out goals and courses of action for the next several years. But studies by business professor William Starbuck at the University of Oregon show that strategic planning doesn't improve performance at companies, because of the way in which all the assumptions and predictions incorporated into the planning fail to jibe with the messy way in which events unfold.
National leaders are likewise kidding themselves when they treat the international scene as a giant clockwork mechanism whose workings can be analyzed and tinkered with to achieve a desired outcome. The Soviet Union's long-range schemes were all for naught, though much havoc was wreaked in the effort. The United States' orderly domino theory of how communism would creep methodically through Southeast Asia, and which drove America's unlucky Vietnam policy, also failed to match the less-neat reality. And yet U.S. leaders spoke, albeit briefly, once again of a new domino theory, in which democracy would click in, notch by notch, through the Middle East, starting with Iraq.
Leaders locked into a long-range vision not only fail to recognize when things are going wrong, they manage to mistake contradiction for confirmation. You might think that the vast amount of data zipping around the world would help decision makers see the error of their ways, but that's not so, says Jonathan Aronson, a professor of international relations and executive director at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for Communication. "They go in with a mind-set of 'This is how it's going to be,' and then they fit whatever new information comes up into that mind-set," he says. (The Bush administration's case for invading Iraq is a case in point.) Superb communications make the problem worse, he says, because centralized decision makers can more easily call the shots, overriding people in the field who see things going wrong.
What does a country that takes a messy approach to foreign policy look like? There are no world powers to point to in this regard, but Israel offers an interesting example on a regional scale. To be sure, Israel's actions have raised ire throughout the Middle East and around much of the world. But in its case, mere survival is a testament to the potential power of gravitating toward a reactive, improvisational, inconsistent style that's mostly free of vision and long-term schemes. Indeed, Israeli policymakers and thinkers tend to be inherently skeptical of any effort to peer into the future, let alone manipulate it. Avigdor Levy, now a professor of Near Eastern studies at Brandeis University, was at an Israeli policy think tank before throwing up his hands at the quest. "It's folly," he says. "We have no idea what's coming down the pike; everything is more or less a guess." In fact, it can be argued that Israel has been too messy in its swift, aggressive, improvised reactions to threats, such as last year's incursion into Lebanon to battle Hizbullah. Tempering such reflexes with a bit of a view toward a longer-range solution to its problems might leave the country less isolated and with better prospects for peace. More often, though, countries err on the side of excess order, and thrive when they back off—as has been the case in China, where a rise in productivity has roughly tracked the government's willingness to loosen up a bit.
Terrorism, by its nature, is a messy affair—the very disorder of terrorist organizations is what makes it so hard to combat them or learn about them. But though most of us tend to think of terrorists as emerging from disordered, fractured, unstable states, terrorism tends to be a product of excessive order, says David Rapoport, professor emeritus of political science at UCLA. "Switzerland produced the beginning of modern terrorism toward the end of the 19th century," he says, noting that the violent Russian revolutionary organization Narodnaya Volya was headquartered there, "and most sources since then have been orderly states." And in fact European terrorism experts are increasingly focused on home-grown terrorist activity of the sort that led to the London subway bombings of 2005 and the Madrid train bombing of 2004, as well as the type of ethnic tensions that spawned the French riots of 2005.
Most countries' response to terrorism? Assert yet more order, over both other countries and even their own populations. A report from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terror, funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, found that many existing counterterrorism efforts "show no evidence of reducing terrorism and may even increase the likelihood of terrorism and terrorism-related harm." Bruce Schneier, a security expert and founder of computer-security firm BT Counterpane, contends that countries should stop wasting their time trying to anticipate terrorist tactics, and instead focus on improving responses to unanticipated attacks, as well as on gathering more intelligence.
Even international responses to natural disasters may need to be messier. USC's Aronson notes that although formal warning systems were in place when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck in 2004, the most effective warning system turned out to be people getting calls on cell phones. And though there was an organized international response to the disaster, he says, that's not what did the most good. "The response was best where individual local leaders took charge and did a good job," he says. That proved true in the response to the devastation of New Orleans and surrounding areas by Hurricane Katrina, he adds. In spite of all the talk of how state and federal governments lacked plans for coping with such a disaster, in truth there were plenty of plans—and they just got in the way of the people doing the rescue work. In many cases, notes Aronson, shipments of relief supplies were stopped and held because they didn't conform to specified procedures.
That may be the biggest problem with an overly ordered approach to managing nations. When we treasure order, we end up with governments run by planners and asserters of organization, for all the good that does. What we need are flexible decision makers who can step outside the visions and schemes and plans to clearly see what's going on, and then make fast, on-the-fly calls about how to respond, while continuing to adapt those responses to changing conditions. A messy world calls for messy leaders.