Is mental effort contagious?

 |  By: Steve Johnson In: Trends

Psychology research says that the answer is yes, mental effort is indeed contagious, although researchers are not at all clear why.

Visit a typical agency or consultancy today and you’ll see an open landscape of work surfaces with people staring intently at their screens. Is it distracting to have so many people working so closely together? Or does it have a positive effect?

New research (August 2015) published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review set out to discover the answer. Two participants worked on a task. The researchers making the task more difficult for one of them, requiring them to increase their focus.

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The result was that the increased focus by that person positively affected the performance of the other person too.

Perhaps you might have expected this result on the assumption that the second person can see what the first person is working on, and that this inspired them to work harder. Or that they are mimicking the speed that they see the other person is working. Not true. What is fascinating is that when the researchers made it impossible for the participants to see each others’ work or their work rate, the effect continued.

What’s going on? How can one person working harder raise the game of another nearby? The researchers think it might have something to do with body language. People focusing hard on their work probably hold themselves in different ways, and other workers might pick up on this and find themselves increasing their high work rate without conscious effort, indeed without even noticing what’s happening.

However, the researchers mentioned that perhaps a "more radical hypothesis 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."

So, in your workplace, do you notice a higher work rate if a new team member with higher mental focus joins the group? If so, you’re witnessing a phenomenon that has only just been given compelling evidence. But as for the reason, you’re theory is probably as good as anyone’s. Does your office smell a bit funny?


Desender, K., Beurms, S., & Van den Bussche, E. (2015). Is mental effort exertion contagious? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.