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Chess Players Perform Worse in Polluted Air

New study shows that PM2.5 pollution can negatively affect cognitive ability

Holden Galusha

Holden Galusha is the associate editor for Lab Manager. He was a freelance contributing writer for Lab Manager before being invited to join the team full-time. Previously, he was the...

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In a new paper published in Management Scienceresearchers have shown that air pollution can have adverse effects on how well chess players perform. This indicates that air pollution can have adverse effects on strategic thinking and decision-making in general. They observed that the rate at which chess players make erroneous moves, qualified as such by software designed to assess moves, increases when playing in polluted environments.

“We find that when individuals are exposed to higher levels of air pollution, they make more mistakes, and they make larger mistakes,” said Juan Palacios, economist at MIT’s Sustainable Urbanization Lab and a co-author of the paper. The researchers evaluated the performance of 121 chess players across three tournaments in 2017, 2018, and 2019. In total, the tournaments consisted of more than 30,000 chess moves, all of which were evaluated by software to determine the quality of the move. While the players competed, three sensors inside the venue measured the temperature, carbon dioxide levels, and the concentration of particulate matter 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5). PM2.5 is commonly associated with burning matter found in cars, power plants, indoor cooking, and more, which contribute to global air pollution that takes more than 4 million lives annually, according to the World Health Organization.

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With each of the three tournaments lasting three weeks, the researchers could observe how changing air quality in the venue impacted players’ performance. PM2.5 concentrations ranged from 14 to 70 micrograms per cubic meter of air, which are exposure levels found in cities across the globe. The team confirmed their findings after ruling out other potential explanations for a dip in performance, such as increased noise or changes in carbon dioxide levels and temperature. “Ultimately, the analysis using the plausibly random variation in pollution driven by changes in wind direction confirms that the findings are driven by the direct exposure to air particles,” according to the news release.

Overall, the data showed that even a modest increase in PM2.5 levels will increase the probability of making an error by 2.1 percentage points, with the magnitude of those errors increasing by 10.8 percent. These results were exacerbated when faced with time limits as well. “We find it interesting that those mistakes especially occur in the phase of the game where players are facing time pressure,” Palacios said. “When these players do not have the ability to compensate [for] lower cognitive performance with greater deliberation, [that] is where we are observing the largest impacts.”

Palacios also emphasizes that such cognitive effects can be observed even when the source of the pollution is miles away. This study and similar literature could have important implications for workers living in areas with considerable levels of air pollution. The researchers hope that their data will be used to inform policymakers’ decisions regarding environmental regulations.