The experiments were led by a team of Belgian researchers from Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. The research team wanted to determine whether simply sitting near a person who is working hard is enough to increase productivity.
In their first experiment, the researchers had 38 participants perform a task at a computer screen. Instead of having each participant perform the task alone, they had two participants perform the task simultaneously with a shared screen. Even though each participant could see how the other was responding, both participants worked separately and were told not to compete.
Unbeknown to the participants, the researchers would periodically alter the difficulty, forcing one participant to work harder than the other. When this happened, the participant who was receiving the easier task performed even better than before, seemingly bolstered by the other participant’s increased effort.
“In the current study, we showed for the first time that the exertion of mental effort is contagious,” wrote the researchers. “Simply performing a task next to a person who exerts a lot of effort in a task will make you do the same.”
The researchers then decided to test whether participants were consciously or unconsciously responding to their counterpart’s screen. To test this, they placed a cardboard barrier between the two participants, preventing them from seeing each other’s screens but not each other.
Once again, when one person worked harder, the other person followed suit.
What does this mean?
From these results, the researchers concluded that – for whatever reason – mental effort can be contagious.
“In our study, there were no incentives for exerting high or low levels of effort, but nevertheless participants exert more mental effort when the person next to them was doing so,” the researchers explained. “Thus, subtle effects of effort contagion, as observed in the current study, expose at least one of the boundaries within which people tend to avoid high effort.”
The researchers don’t know exactly how individuals could tell that their counterparts were working harder than usual, although they suspect that the person with the more difficult task may have had noticeably tenser posture. They also note that it’s possible that individuals who exert effort give off a particular scent.
In the meantime, it might be worth trying to “catch” a little productivity the next time you’re struggling with a difficult project. Head over to a coffee shop or library to bask in the glow of your fellow workers.
You might just find yourself working a little harder, too.
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis.