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Training attention to help deal with stress

Baldwin Social Cognition Lab
McGill University

Our attention training task, shown above, is currently being featured in a BBC production examining the psychological benefits of attention training. Below we present some background information as well as some links to research publications and to other versions of the game you can try. (When the link to the BBC program is available, we will put that link here. )

The idea behind this attention-training task, or "game", is that it gives the player practice at ignoring or disengaging from social threats.

Each time you drag your attention away from one of the frowning faces in the game in order to find a smiling, accepting face, this helps to build a mental habit. After a hundred trials or more the habit can become automatic: Next time you are reminded of a rejection or criticism from someone else, rather than dwelling on it and getting caught up by it - which happens so easily - you may be better able to automatically "let it go" and move on to think about other topics that are important to you. This is because the mental habit generalizes beyond the visual domain of disengaging from frowning faces, to apply to disengaging from thoughts and worries about social rejection and criticism. We first designed the game because we discovered that many people, either due to chronic feelings of insecurity or to periods of social stress in their life, tend to have their attention drawn toward frowning faces. Presumably this sets up a kind of vicious cycle: A person feels insecure for some reason, this leads them to be vigilant for possible rejections and criticisms, so they interpret ambiguous social feedback negatively and focus their energy on thinking about it, which makes them even more insecure. Could we break this vicious cycle by training attention? For his PhD dissertation work, Stephane Dandeneau found that indeed the find-the-smile game (which we call the Matrix) did reduce people's tendency to focus on frowns. In a later study, he found that adult learners felt less critical of themselves after working on some very difficult puzzles, if they had played the attention training game beforehand.

We found that this training game helped people deal better with stress.

The stresses of life can be made even harder to deal with if we feel that people are rejecting or criticising us; on the other hand if we feel accepted and supported by others this can help us feel confident in dealing with daily challenges. Attention can play a role here. We found that University students felt less stressed about their exam if they played this game (versus a similar placebo game) while studying. In another study we asked telemarketing operators to play the game each day for a week, before starting their daily shift. By the end of the week of dealing with people angrily hanging up on them, operators in the control condition felt -as you might imagine- stressed. Among operators who played the game before their shift, by comparison, they felt less stressed and more confident. Plus by the end of the week they had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their system. And, remarkably, they made more sales because they felt more confident and self-assured. Other researchers have used this attentional training with socially anxious children. They found that kids who played a version of the game repeatedly over a period of weeks were significantly less anxious by the end of the study.

You can find links to the research publications, HERE.

You can try various versions of the game.

On this website we have several versions that are similar to or identical to the ones we use for our research. Also, we have licensed the idea to a game developer, Mindhabits, to make a more fun version where the faces flip around, points can be won, and so on. If you do decide to try the game, please keep in mind that this is best considered a game or research tool, rather than as any kind of treatment. It is not intended as a treatment for any psychological problem or significant stressor; for such purposes you are strongly advised to consult a mental health professional. But, if you want to try the games out of interest, here are some links:

See some potential here? We are always open to new collaboration ideas.

If you are a psychology researcher and want to use our games in your research, you can find information about how to do so elsewhere on our website, or feel free to contact us. If you want to try the game for yourself and let us know the impact it has on you, we would be happy to hear about it. You can mail comments or questions to us at [at] If you are a business owner and you would like to make the game available to your employees, or you run an organization where you think this might be useful, and you would be open to collecting data for a research study, let us know. Otherwise, for organizational or business use you can contact the spinoff developer Mindhabits Inc.

Baldwin Social Cognition Lab