The Tetris Effect: Is Your Knee-Jerk Reaction Negative? 

July 24, 2014

12:00 pm

In a study out of Harvard Medical School, participants played Tetris three days in a row for hours. What happened to them afterward became known as the Tetris Effect:

“For days after the study, some participants literally couldn’t stop dreaming about shapes falling from the sky. Others couldn’t stop seeing these shapes everywhere, even in their waking hours. Quite simply, they couldn’t stop seeing their world as being made up of sequences of Tetris blocks,” writes Shawn Achor in The Happiness Advantage. They saw Tetris in bricks on the wall, cereal boxes on the shelves, and buildings in the skyline – which, if flipped, might fit perfectly together. 

Later research revealed that they had actually developed new neural pathways that were skilled at spotting particular, Tetris-like patterns. 

The point of the Tetris Effect, in a book about happiness and productivity, is to show how we cultivate well-worn mental habits. Like grooves in a dirt road, they shape our behavior without us even considering the alternative. 

For example: “The boss who focuses on what an employee continues to do wrong, instead of how he’s improving. The colleague who predicts doom before every meeting, no matter the circumstances. You know the type. Maybe you’re even one of them,” writes Achor. 

Do you have any knee-jerk negative reactions at work? If someone proposes a plan, do you immediately start thinking of the ways it won’t work? As a manager, is your first instinct to criticize, rather than to praise? When you look at your day ahead, do you always dread the boring meeting or look forward to the cool new project you’re working on? 

“Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals,” says Achor. 

Not only that, but patterns of negative thinking can spill over into our personal life. Achor encountered a tax auditor who – in the habit of spending his day scanning tax returns for errors – made a spreadsheet of all his wife’s mistakes in the past six weeks. Ouch.

Scientists say that our brain only remembers 1 out of every 100 pieces of information we receive, which is a blessing and a curse. We don’t have to let negative things take over our attention, but it becomes crucial what that 1% of information is. If it’s negative, it’s time to start training your brain for a different game. 

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact

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