Playing tetris could relieve worries, anxious waiting

October 27, 2018

TETRIS could be the salve for a worried mind, according to a new study.

The venerable video game was used in a recent experiment to create a state of “flow” — the term psychologists use to describe a state of mind so engaged it makes the rest of the world fall away, and time pass more quickly.

In place of Tetris, in which blocks are flipped every which way and stacked into rows, one can substitute flow activities such as rock climbing, carpentry, playing chess, or swimming.

According to the study, “worry and waiting” refers to worry during periods of anxious waiting, such as for medical test results or the outcome of a job interview. It has suggested that optimists are as prone as pessimists to brace themselves for the worst, that worry can act as a motivator, and that many coping strategies fail us during periods of uncertainty.

In the study, researcher Kate Sweeny of University of California – Riverside homed in on one of those coping strategies: distraction.

Distraction is an imperfect coping strategy, because one must reach the flow plateau for distraction to work. And achieving a state of flow isn’t easy. If the activity isn’t challenging enough, you get bored. No flow. If it’s too difficult, you get frustrated. Again, no flow.

“Flow requires a delicate balance. Flow is most readily achieved with activities that challenge the person somewhat, but not too much; have clear, achievable goals; and that provide the person with feedback about how they’re doing along the way,” Sweeny said.

The study participants played Tetris for 10 minutes. The game was introduced at varying levels: one level was “low challenge,” i.e, easy; the second was “adaptive,” changing in difficulty as participants’ abilities increased; the third was “high challenge,” or difficult.

After the game, they completed a survey measuring flow, worry, and emotion. Finally, the study’s research assistants explained the true nature of the research.

The participants who achieved flow — those in the adaptive group — experienced less negative emotion, and greater positive emotion than those who were bored, or for whom the level of play was too difficult.

The study was one of three studies that Sweeny combined as part of her research on flow. The first two looked variously at law students awaiting the results of the California bar exam, and Ph.D. students awaiting news from job applications. In both instances, participants reported less worry and felt emotionally better when they experienced greater flow.

“The Tetris study is key because it experimentally manipulates flow and shows effects of that manipulation, which provides convincing evidence that flow actually causes well-being during waiting periods, not that it just happens to coincide with well-being,” Sweeny said.