Mental Exertion Might Be Contagious

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Having problems concentrating at the office? Here's why you need to sit next to that co-worker who is extra focused: A new study in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review suggests that, like yawning or laughing, thinking hard can be contagious. 

In the experiment, a group of Belgian researchers gave participants two versions of the same computer-based task. Pairs of participants shared computers. Each person was tasked with pressing a key when two of four possible color squares showed up on screen. For one person in the pair, this task was easy, since the colors showed up on the same side of the computer screen where they were sitting, and they could use their hand on the same side to respond, making the task more automated. For the other person, the task was designed to elicit less automatic responses by requiring the person to respond to squares that were on the opposite side of their body as the hand they were using to click. The person in the latter condition had to concentrate harder, because the task was more difficult.

The researchers ran this experiment twice, one time when both people could see what the other person was responding to on the computer, and once with a divider running down the middle of the screen to prevent each person from knowing how challenging the other’s task was. In both cases, they found that when one person’s task was significantly harder than the other’s, the person with the easier task seemed to be concentrating harder than usual. Their responses were less automatic than they normally would be at such an easy level of the game, suggesting that they were concentrating more on their task even though it didn't require that much mental exertion.

This contagious effect might be the result of seeing the change in body posture of someone who is concentrating really hard, the researchers suggest, or it could be something else. One out-there proposal the authors suggest: people might be able to subconsciously smell each other’s mental exertion.

[h/t: BPS Research Digest]