Stress Toys: Mindlessness With a Purpose?

Preliminary research indicates that “fidget widgets” might boost attention and memory.


The tips of all my pens are all chewed up. When I’m nervous, I take my ring off and put it back on, repeatedly. I twirl my hair and crack my knuckles and play with my necklace and slip my shoes off and on under my desk. In short, I fidget.

Maybe these habits are annoying to my coworkers, but it’s probably better for my productivity than if I just sat quietly and stared at my screen. Research seems to be increasingly showing that a focused person is not necessarily one who is sitting still at a desk for a solid eight hours a day.

There are plenty of articles offering suggestions on how to outsmart the ingrained drudgery of office life, by taking breaks or moving around. Eventually, though, no matter how many intermissions are built into the day, everyone will eventually have to get around to actually doing work.

And that’s when it can help to have something for people to occupy their hands with. For example, people have been shown to remember information better when they took notes by hand than when they typed them up on a keyboard. One oft-cited study found that doodling also seems to boost memory; its author hypothesized that doodling might help keep people from daydreaming during a boring task.

It’s possible that stress toys could, in a similar way, keep people’s minds from wandering. A pair of researchers at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University have begun looking into what they call “fidget widgets”—objects that people play with while thinking about something else. The researchers have set up a Tumblr where people can submit their own fidget widgets—and pictures of everything from standard stress balls to Silly Putty to paperclips have come in.

Previous research has shown that minor distractions can help boost productivity by giving the mind a break, making it easier to pay attention to the task upon returning to it. But a key thing that separates a fidget widget from other distractions is that it’s used “for the enjoyment of the experience itself,” not to achieve any particular goal. So by that logic, playing an iPhone game to take a break from work wouldn’t provide the same experience as squeezing a stress ball or twirling a pen.

In preliminary work they published as a presentation for the 8th International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction, Michael Karlesky and Katherine Isbister theorize that fidget widgets are “playful, secondary interactions able to engage the interrelation of bodily movement, affective state, and cognition to support primary serious tasks.”

They could be on to something. In one study, sixth-graders who used stress balls were less distracted in class. The toys could also be more helpful for some people than others; in that study, students who were kinesthetic learners tended to use the stress balls more, and get more of an attention benefit from them. Another study found that stress balls helped relieve patients’ anxiety during surgery. (Hopefully, few jobs are more anxiety-inducing than surgery.)

So, even though there haven’t been any conclusive studies on whether fidget widgets can be said to relieve workplace stress, it at least seems like they could be a helpful tool. In a time when health problems linked to stress cause 120,000 deaths a year, workers could use all the help they can get.