If you’re about to dive into a piece of work that requires intense mental focus, you might find it helps to sit next to someone else who is concentrating hard.
According to an ingenious new study published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, mental exertion is contagious: If a person near you is straining their synapses in mental effort, their mindset will automatically intensify your own concentration levels.
Like influences like
Psychologists have known since at least the 1960s that the presence of other people affects our own performance. For example, the 1965 Social Facilitation Theory describes how the presence of other people makes it easier to perform well-rehearsed, automatic behaviours. Company can also be distracting and make it difficult to perform behaviours that require mental control.
Kobe Desender at Vrije Universiteit in Belgium and his colleagues wanted to build on these findings by testing whether it makes a difference to our performance what other people present are doing — and specifically, if someone else is using a lot of mental effort, does that affect how much mental effort we exert ourselves?
Thirty-eight participants performed a version of what’s known as the “Simon task” in pairs. Coloured squares appeared on either the left or right-hand side of a computer screen. When two of the four possible colours of square appeared, the person to the left of the screen was required to press the ‘d’ keyboard key as fast as possible with their left hand. When either of the two other possible coloured squares appeared, the person on the right was required to press the ‘k’ key with their right hand.
Although the task was performed in pairs in this way, there was no possibility for collaboration between partners, nor was there competition. Desender and his team were interested in those instances when they made the task super difficult for one participant, but they kept the difficulty medium for the other.
In this situation, the participant in the difficult version had to use maximum mental effort to succeed. The finding is that this mental effort influenced their partner. A person alongside someone who was forced to concentrate really hard was less influenced by their own targets’ congruency.
Further analysis confirmed that this effect was not caused simply by one player mimicking the other’s response speed. Nor was it that the participants were influenced by looking at their partner’s ratio of congruent. Researchers ruled out this possibility in a follow-up study in which each player had their own display, and a piece of cardboard stopped them from being able to see their partner’s squares. Researchers don’t know what led this to happen, but they speculate that perhaps it had to do with body posture.