Concentration Is Contagious, So Choose Your Coffee Shop Carefully

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I have, in all likelihood, never investigated anything in my life as thoroughly as I’ve investigated the coffee-shop situation in my neighborhood. (Probably not a great thing for a journalist to admit, but there you go.) It took me six months after moving before I found the perfect one to work at: plenty of outlets; decent Wi-Fi; almost never super-crowded, but not so empty that I feel like the lone weird lurker if I stay there a long time. Which I do, often, because I work remotely and they have really good sandwiches.

But it’s not just the lure of the outside snacks that keeps me from passing the entire workday in my living room — like plenty of people, I just get more done when there are other people around. As Simon Oxenham explained in New Scientist earlier this week, there are a few reasons why this might be the case. The first is something called the “audience effect,” or the idea that we perform better at a task when we’re doing it in front of a small group (in this case, perhaps, it means you rely on the judging eyes of strangers to keep you from falling too far down the YouTube rabbit hole). The second is the fact that we tend to do better at something when it’s a competition (who can look like they’re working the hardest, maybe?).

And the third reason, and possibly the weirdest one, is that concentration might be contagious. Oxenham highlighted a recent study in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review illustrating this very phenomenon: A total of 38 volunteers performed a reaction-time test, pressing certain letters of the keyboard when certain colored shapes appeared onscreen. The subjects worked side by side in pairs, so one member of each twosome was responsible for one side of the screen (but the two sides were scored separately, meaning that one person’s score had no bearing on the other’s).

Over time, the researchers made things harder for Player A, forcing them to ramp up the mental effort they were using for the task, but kept a constant, lower level of difficulty for Player B. Even when the two sides were mismatched, though, the two subjects still showed similar levels of exertion — Player B’s accuracy rates improved as Player A’s task became more challenging, which the researchers took to mean that Player B concentrated more intently to meet the mental effort of Player A. In another setting, the researchers stuck a piece of cardboard down the length of the screen, so that the players couldn’t see what their partner saw. They could still see each other, though, and the same thing happened: When one player focused harder, so did the other.

“How this effect occurs isn’t clear,” Oxenham wrote, “but it might be that we are influenced by subtle, unconscious cues such as a person’s body posture or breathing.” (Although, the study authors noted, “more radical hypotheses 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.”) It does suggest, though, that the ideal setting for productivity is one where everyone around you is also being productive, or at least looking the part. Oxenham suggested a library — or, “if you’d prefer to work in the proximity of caffeine, it might be better to choose a café filled with people working, instead of one where the clientele is largely there to socialize.” Just, you know, make sure the food’s okay before you settle in anywhere for the afternoon.