A video game designed to change people's perception of social threats and boost self-confidence has been found to have another positive impact - it can also help keep stress at bay.
The game, designed by researchers at McGill University, helps by reducing the production of the stress-related hormone cortisol by 17 percent it was found.
"We already knew that it was possible to design games to allow people to practise new forms of social perception, but we were surprised by the impact this had when we took the games out of the lab and into the context of people's stressful lives," said McGill psychology professor Mark Baldwin.
Prof. Baldwin and his team - McGill PhD graduates Stéphane Dandeneau and Jodene Baccus and graduate student Maya Sakellaropoulo - have been developing a suite of video games that train players in social situations to focus more on positive feedback rather than being distracted and deterred by perceived social slights or criticisms.
Back in 2004 the researchers, conducting a study on 56 students, found that a standard reaction-time test showed that the game, called the Matrix, helped people shift the way they processed social information.
The boffins then decided to check and see whether the game also had any effects on stress. They then conducted another study involving 23 employees of a Montreal-based call centre. They employees were asked to play one of their games, which involves clicking on the one smiling face among many frowning faces on a screen as quickly as possible. Through repetitive playing, the game trains the mind to orient more toward positive aspects of social life.
They volunteers were asked to do this each workday morning for a week. They also had to fill out daily stress and self-esteem questionnaires. Their cortisol levels were then tested through saliva analysis on the final day of the experiment. These tests showed an average 17-percent reduction in cortisol production compared to a control group that played a similar game but without the smiling faces.
"There are many possible applications for this kind of game from helping people cope with the social anxiety of public speaking or meeting new people, to helping athletes concentrate more on their game rather than worrying about performing poorly," said Prof. Baldwin.
The new findings appear in the October issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.