Last updated: Jun 06, 2016

It may not be an epidemic yet, but concentration appears to be contagious, according to new research.

This could help explain why some of us (think coffee shop worker bees, and fans of the open-office floor plan) are more productive around other people—at least other people who aren't slacking off.

"Our findings might also suggest that we will copy low effort too, so it's not as simple as 'studying together is better,'" lead author Kobe Desender, a doctoral researcher in the cognitive psychology group of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, told Health in an e-mail. "But working in the vicinity of highly motivated people might be wise."

Research had already shown that having another person nearby can affect how well you perform. But does what the other person is doing have any influence? To find out, Desender and his co-authors conducted two experiments.

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In the first, 38 volunteers sat side by side in pairs, each duo sharing a computer and a keyboard. They were asked to respond to certain colors appearing on the screen by hitting pre-specified buttons on the keyboard. The task became more difficult for participant A but stayed the same for participant B. Regardless, participant B tended to match his or her effort to participant A even though B's task remained the same.

The second experiment was the same as the first, except this time a cardboard wall divided the computer screen in half. That way participants could not see what their matched pair was doing, and the researchers could determine that Participant B's improved performance was due to mental effort, and not just seeing the partner's tasks.

Either way, the result was the sameand not too different from the findings of other "social contagion" studies which have suggested, for instance, that obesity may be contagious.

When one person in a group gains or loses weight, friends tend to follow suit. "How your partner, friend, or Weight Watchers [buddy] is engaging with the world, the task that they're doing is going to have some impact on you and your behavior," Aaron Heller, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, told Health. (Heller wasn't involved in the current study.)

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There's no good explanation for why mental effort may be contagious, at least not yet. It's possible that we pick up on scent cues emanating from our neighbors, or even their body posture. "Some postures are indicative of increased effort," says Desender. "But [this is] very speculative." 

Who knows—there may even be an evolutionary perk to matching the level of exertion of the person in the next cave, er, cube. "If my co-worker exerts quite some effort in a task, it makes sense to do the same, this might be a good cue with a high evolutionary advantage. If she or he has access to more information then you, mirroring her or his effort might be adaptive," says Desender.

"Future research should examine how we detect effort in other persons," says Desender. It would also be interesting to note how individual differences play into the dynamic, Heller notes, for example, in people who are depressed and withdrawn.

For now, though, all we know is that focused effort seemed to spread between volunteers in a university experiment. We don't know if this will be the same in a library, coffee shop, or office setting. But it does seem to matter who your friends are.