If you're anything like me, you tend to seek out coffee shops as cozy places to sit down and get some work done. For me, the main draw is definitely the caffeine supply, but beyond that, it's also the environment: Do you ever feel like you get more work done when you're surrounded by others? If so, you're certainly not alone; in fact, there are major research studies taking place right now to examine this interesting phenomenon. It's that feeling you get when you go to the library to study for a final exam and you suddenly find yourself mimicking the good study behaviors of those around you, barreling down into your own work. Even if people are working on different tasks, they likely exhibit one trait that you pick up on: focus.
Now, to be fair, there are many reasons you might find yourself working harder when people are around you. Perhaps you're naturally competitive and want to out-perform others by finishing your work faster, visibly moving onto the next task, or just giving yourself the mental pat on the back for accomplishing more. It's also possible that you are prone to feeling judged by others when you drift from the task in front of you. (This happens to me frequently when I become consumed by scrolling through Twitter while I'm supposed to be working on a paper.)
A recent study explores a new explanation for why we tend to perform better with other people around us, and I think its findings are pretty fascinating. Published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, the April 2016 study suggests that beyond judgment or competition, the very nature of focus might be contagious. Yeah, that's right: When other people around you are focusing, their concentration may be contagious.
Let's take a closer look at the multi-experiment study in question:
The First Experiment:
Researchers begin this study by organizing 38 volunteers. Volunteers began by performing reaction-time tests, which involved pressing certain letters of the keyboard when particular colored shapes appeared on the screen. At this stage, participants worked side by side in and in pairs. This meant that one member of each duo was responsible for each side of the screen, though the pair received two separate scores, so one person's score did not negate or inflate the other person's result.
The Second Experiment:
For part two of the study, researchers switched it up with a few new obstacles. For instance, researchers increased the difficulty of Person 1's tests, forcing them to put in more concentration and mental effort, but kept a constant, lower level of difficulty for Person 2. In spite of the different levels of difficulty, the two subjects showed similar levels of exertion and effort. This happened in the reverse, too, when Person 2 had a more difficult task and Person 1 had a lower level one. In another round of the experiment, researchers placed a piece of cardboard down the length of the screen, obstructing the player's view of the other half of the screen. Participants could still each see other, however, and the same phenomenon occurred: When one person focused more, the other person did too, even when their task didn't actually get any harder.
While more research needs to be done, researchers think it's possible that people respond to cues from those around them about how much mental energy they should exert in terms of concentration, focus, etc. This could be, for example, an increase in someone's breathing or someone readjusting their posture, suggesting that they're putting more focus and attention on the task at hand, thereby implying that it requires greater attention. To me, this definitely makes sense: I certainly do more work when I'm surrounded by other people who are working (or who, at least, I perceive to be working, as I'm not one to peer at other people's computer screens) than I do if there are a lot of people chatting or having a casual lunch around me instead. Hopefully more research will continue on this subject, so we can better pick up on cues from others to settle down and get to work when it's necessary.
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