Good news, LC students, science says concentration is contagious

Research suggests there's no better place to be productive than surrounded by others being productive

Leaving Cert, Junior Cert, State Examinations, concentration, exam centre

File photo of the exam centre in Belvedere College SJ, Dublin, on the first day of the Leaving Certificate [Rolling News/Mark Stedman]

With roughly 120,000 Irish teenagers now past the first hurdle of English Paper One, the memory of time spent inside a school gymnasium surrounded by rows and rows of other pupils furiously scribbling while you stare blankly at your empty page can be one most people are glad to have already been through. But the good news for those facing into the state examinations is that when it comes to concentration, some psychologists believe it might be contagious.

It’s why university libraries or cafés with ample electrical points have become the Mecca of productivity in the modern world. Instead of looming deadlines or drip-filtered lattes, the act of surrounding yourself with other working people can actually be the impetus to get you working yourself.

Writing in New Scientist, Simon Oxenham outlined some of the theories as to why this might be the case; first and foremost is the theory of the ‘audience effect,’ which suggests that personal performance is heightened when it takes place in front of others – like the judgmental eyes of other patrons who might spot you endless scrolling through someone’s profile photos on Facebook.

Second comes the ‘competition theory,’ which psychologists believe is linked to our innate competitive natures that manifest in outwardly trying to look like we’re working the hardest.

But the most peculiar reason is linked to a recent study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review which suggests that we pick up and catch concentration from others around us. In the study, 38 volunteers each took part in a test examining their reaction speeds at typing the right series of letters on a keyboard when prompted by shapes on a screen. Working in pairs, one member of each group was designated responsible for one half of the computer screen in front of both of them, but both parties in the group were scored separately.

Over the course of the experiment, the researchers would turn up the difficulty level of the half of the screen aside to Player A, which required that player to up his or her game and perform better. Player B’s side remained constantly at a lower level of difficulty. The researchers noticed that despite the level disparity, the mental effort exerted by both players remained the same throughout, with Player B’s accuracy rates actually improving in line with the increased level of difficulty faced by Player A.

To blind test the participants, the researchers then prohibited Players A and B from being able to see each others’ halves of the computer screen, but did not block them from being able to see each other. And the results of the experiment proved the same, when Player A increased his or her focus, Player B matched up.

“How this effect occurs isn’t clear,” Oxenham says, “But it might be that we are influenced by subtle, unconscious cues such as a person’s body posture or breathing.”

What the study does suggest is that the perfect setting for productivity is one where you are surrounded by other people who are – or at least look like they’re being – productive. Regardless of whether or not you can see what they’re doing. So revel in that, Leaving and Junior Cert students, you’re in the right place.

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