Consider Who You Sit Next to at Work: New Study Shows Concentration is Contagious

Here’s some Monday motivation for you: mental focus is contagious.

So, if you have a lot of intense work to get through this afternoon, you may want to reconsider who you’re sitting beside.

According to an ingenious new study published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, if a person near you is straining their synapses in mental effort, their mindset will automatically intensify your own concentration levels.

For decades, psychologists have known that the presence of other people affects our own performance in easily predictable ways. The presence of some people makes it easier to perform some behaviors, while that of others is distracting and makes it more difficult to concentrate.

And we all know a thing or two about distracting coworkers.

Anyway, to take previous findings further, Kobe Desender  and his colleagues at Vrije Universiteit in Belgium wanted to specifically test whether it affects how much mental effort we exert ourselves if we’re near someone else who is using a lot of mental effort.

Thirty-eight participants (20 women; average age: 22) formed pairs and performed a version of what’s known as the “Simon task.” 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 who sat to the left of the screen was instructed to press the ‘d’ keyboard key as fast as possible with their left hand. Meanwhile, when either of the two other possible coloured squares appeared, the person on the right was required to press the ‘k’ key as fast as possible with their right hand.

There was no need or possibility for either collaboration or competition between partners.

It was easier for participants to respond to a their instructed target square when it appeared on the same side that they were sitting. That was therefore also the same side as the hand they were using to respond when the target and response were congruent.

The higher the proportion of congruent trials that a participant was subjected to, the easier the task would become, as they switched to a more automatic mode of responding.

By varying their proportion of congruent versus incongruent trials, the researchers manipulated the task’s difficulty individually for each person in a pair. Also providing an early indicator of a person’s concentration levels was the issue of stimulus-response congruence. Meaning, if a person was trying too hard, their performance would be less affected by whether their target squares were congruent or not.

The incidences where Desender and his team made the task super difficult for one person, with a rate of only 10 per cent congruent trials, but kept the difficulty medium for the other participant were of particular focus. Of course, in this case, the participant in the challenging situation was required to use maximum mental effort to succeed.

As it turns out, this mental effort influenced their partner.

A person playing alongside someone who was forced to concentrate very hard was less influenced by their own targets’ congruency – a sign that they too were trying harder than normal.

The effect of this wasn’t caused by one player mimicking the other or by one knowing that the other’s was more difficult. This was ruled out in a follow-up study in which each player had their own display, and a piece of cardboard prevented them from being able to see their partner’s squares.

Apparently, it could all come down to body posture. At least, that’s what the researchers speculate. The stronger levels of concentration could manifest in a more tense body posture than can rub off on the other person, causing them to concentrate extra hard too.

Your body posture can say a lot about your levels of stress and energy – and these are contagious in the workplace.

However, the researchers added that a “more radical hypothesis should also be considered, such as the possibility that effort exertion is influenced by a difference in scent of someone else exerting high or low effort.”

Either way, if you’re the boss and in plain view of your employees at the moment, you may want to sit up and look a little more focused.