Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Antiferromagnetic People

Be thankful for your stressed out colleagues - they may be keeping you cool.

People, it seems, are much like magnets. Not just in their obvious attraction and repulsion tendencies, but also in their tendency to anti-align. You know the behavior I'm talking about - take two bar magnets, place them near each other, and unless their poles are in opposite directions, one of them will flip over.

Materials that have this behavior on a microscopic scale are called antiferromagnetic. Such materials tend to reduce the overall magnetic field. Ferromagnetic materials, like the iron in common magnets, on the other hand, line up to increase the overall magnetic field.

People aren't magnets, of course, but a new study published in the journal Physical Review E shows that we deal with stress (in the office at least) in a way that resembles antiferromagnetic material. If there's a high stress person in your workplace, others who interact with them will end up with less stress. To be specific, having a stressed out person around makes everyone else relax.

On the flipside, one really chill person tends to make everyone else stress out, according to the study that tracked the stress levels of actual office workers under real life conditions.

Instead of reducing a magnetic field, it seems, people tend to reduce the overall difference in stress level. That doesn't mean total stress goes down, just that it evens out across the whole group.

I'm not the most stressed person at my office, and I used to resent the hyper-stressed people who raise a ruckus here from time to time. But now I'm thinking how great it is they're around, otherwise, my relaxed colleagues would be getting me all wound up. In fact, it might be a good idea to hire somebody with the personality of an asthma-hound Chihuahua to really help the rest of us relax. It always worked so well for Stimpy.

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