What can Whac-a-Mole teach you about the ability to focus?
When a visual search is simple, an active style works best.
When the search is complex and challenging (like Whac-a-Mole), a passive approach wins out.
The inventor of the game, Aaron Fetcher, explains. (And research backs him up.)
You might think that the best strategy for playing Whac-a-Mole would be to stay vigilant and keenly focused so that as a mole peeks its head up, you’re ready to strike. Not so. After thirty years of watching people play the game, Fetcher swears he can tell how well someone is going to do the moment they step up to the mallet. “If they look alert and there’s a lot of head and body movement, I know they’re doomed,” he says. “When they’re loose and relaxed they usually get a high score.”
Research backs Fetcher up on this. In 2006, a team of Canadian researchers led by Dan Smilek studied the speed at which people were able to find a specific object among a bunch of similar objects — sort of like a video variation on Whac-a-Mole. Volunteers who were told to simply relax and allow the target to “pop up” in their mind scored higher than those who were told to actively scan for it. This suggests that a laid-back approach is sometimes faster and more efficient than active searching for a target. Smilek’s team found that using a passive approach worked best when the search was hard, but not so well when the search was simple.
And here’s a little bonus: if you want to know how to impress everyone with your amazing Whac-a-Mole skills, Fetcher explains the secret:
“The best way to get a high score is to gaze in a relaxed way at the center of the playing field with the side moles in your peripheral vision. At the start, hold your hammer over the center mole with it grazing the top of the mole’s head. When the first mole pops up and you see where it is out of the corner of your eye, just swat at it — follow it with your eyes but don’t move your head at all. After each swing, bring your mallet back to the center of the playing field and continue gazing and swatting, gazing and swatting. Do that and you’ll hit practically every single one of those critters.