Unwashed pots and pans tower precariously in the sink. Last week's mail is strewn across the countertop, and a TV blares from the next room over. According to a study published in February in Environment and Behavior, this kind of chaotic environment can be enough to make someone overeat, given a certain mindset.

“We knew environmental factors influence behavior, and we knew the influence of stress on overeating in general,” points outs Lenny Vartanian, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia and the study's lead author. “But nobody had connected those to say: here's an experience that lots of people actually encounter. What impact does [a disordered kitchen] have?”

To answer this question, the researchers set up two kitchens: one was cluttered and noisy, the other tidy and quiet. They then instructed 98 female undergraduates to complete a writing assignment while in one of the kitchens. Some of the volunteers wrote about a time they felt particularly out of control; others wrote about a time they felt in control. They were then provided with cookies, crackers and carrots and told they could eat as much as they wanted.

Among the participants who wrote about a time they felt out of control, those in the chaotic kitchen consumed twice as many calories from cookies as did those in the organized kitchen. Subjects in the messy kitchen who had thought about being in control, however, ate less than people in the other groups. “The in-control mindset buffered against the negative impact of the environment,” Vartanian says. He and his team hope to eventually find ways to induce that powerful feeling of control in people in the real world, where kids, busy schedules and the messy business of life can make it tough to keep the kitchen tidy.