Threat and Stress
When you’re in a crowd, do you notice the smiling faces or frowning faces? Social psychologist Mark Baldwin of McGill University in Canada says the answer might influence how much stress you’re under.
“If your attention is drawn during the day towards social threats like rejections and criticisms, you’re filtering the world such that you’re going to see it as more stressful, more threatening, than someone who’s able to be aware of the acceptance and warm support around them,” says Baldwin.
Baldwin and Stephane D. M. Dandeneau, along with other colleagues at McGill and Douglas Hospital Research Center, conducted a multi-part study to see, first, if people’s perception of social threat could influence stress hormone levels and then, if an experimental video game could help improve their well-being.
Baldwin explains that the idea of a video game came from the realization that he and his students had all experienced being riveted by a certain classic: “We were looking for a way to help people train automatic habitual patterns of thought, and my students and I were talking about this one day and we thought about computer games because if you’ve ever played the game Tetris for hours and hours and hours, you start thinking about it when you’re not trying to. You even dream about it. You start reorganizing your closet for no apparent reason.
“And so we thought, okay, can we design a game to use this same kind of interactivity, these repetitive thought processes, to help people train positive, helpful thought processes?”
Smiles and Frowns
In the first part of their study, the group showed that people, when they’re under stress, who tended to pay more attention to frowning faces rather than smiling faces were more likely to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their systems than the people who paid more attention to the smiling faces.
The second part of the study required participants to play the experimental video game in which they searched for one smiling face in a group of 15 frowning faces. It showed that repeating this game over and over oriented people more towards the smiling face.
In the third part of the study, the researchers had students play the “find-the-smile” game every morning for a week for just five minutes. A control group played a video game that required them to search for a five-petalled flower among a group of seven-petalled flowers.
“By the end of the week, the group who played the game felt less stressed about their exam, less anxious during the exam,” says Baldwin.
Lowering Stress and Boosting Sales
For the final part of the study, they tested telemarketers, a group they identified as dealing with a high level of social stressors like rejection. The researchers asked the participants to fill out questionnaires about their self-esteem and stress levels, and to give saliva samples to check for the level of the stress hormone cortisol. Again, one group played the smile game while the other played the flower game.
Those who played the smile game had 17 percent less of the stress hormone after just one week–and a 68 percent increase in sales. They also reported they had less stress and higher self-esteem. Both groups were also evaluated on confidence when talking on the phone by their quality control managers (who did not know which group they were in). The smile game group scored higher on this measure, as well. Baldwin says the game trains people to pay attention to positive things rather than negative things.
“So that suggests we’re able to retrain the automatic habits of thought,” Baldwin says.
He adds, “There are several conclusions. One is just how critical this issue of, ‘Where do you pay your attention in your social life? Do you play attention to positive things or negative, rejecting, attacking things?’ But in some sense, the more important finding is that it is possible to change that fairly simply by practicing over and over again a certain pattern of thought at a very specific level. And that you can actually do that within the context of a kind of computer game is, in some sense, the novel finding that has great potential, we think.”
Baldwin has since developed a commercial version of the game called MindHabits.
Publication: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, October 2007.
Authors: Stephane D. M. Dandeneau, Mark W. Baldwin, Jodene R. Baccus, Maya Sakellaropoulo and Jens C. Pruessner. All authors are from McGill except Jens C. Pruessner who is from Douglas Hospital Research Center
Funding: La Fondation Baxter et Alma Ricard, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health.
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