Mental effort is contagious

Most beings are social, and thus sensitive to the presence of others around them. Even cockroaches perform differently when they are being observed by other members of Blatta orientalis. In this respect, people are no different: we tend to perform simple tasks better when in the presence of other people. There is now a large body of evidence concerning the effects of the presence of others on task performance, and as a first approximation, the presence of others facilitates the performance of simple tasks whereas it may impair the performance of more complex tasks.

However, to date there has been little information available about another person’s effects on performance depending on what that other person is doing. If someone watches me writing a blog post, does it matter whether they yawn, stand on their head, or are doing crossword puzzles?

recent article in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review addressed this issue. Researchers Kobe Desender and colleagues manipulated the difficulty of a task for one member of a pair of subjects. (Call that person A.) Although this manipulation was irrelevant for the task performed by the other pair member (B), the other subject nonetheless tried harder when the task for A was more difficult. This was the case even when pair members could not see each other’s stimuli, suggesting that exerting effort is contagious.

Christian Jarrett of the British Psychological Society has written a great post about this article, which you can find here. Punchline: Maybe effort exertion is influenced by a difference in scent of someone else exerting high or low effort.

Reference for the paper discussed in this post:

Desender, K., Beurms, S., & Van den Bussche, E. (2015). Is mental effort exertion contagious? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review(DOI: 10.3758/s13423-015-0923-3)

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