Checkmated by indoor air pollution? How does indoor air quality impacts strategic decision making

A chess player tends to appear as the stereotype of a top performer in IQ modern society, a person able to solve the most complex cognitive challenges that humans could possibly face. Chess has played an iconic role in recent human history. For instance, the chess games between Bobby Fischer (USA) and Boris Spassky (Soviet Union) called the attention of millions of people that watched those series of games as a major episode of the ongoing Cold War; or the game between the Chess Master Garry Kasparov against the IBM supercomputer “deep blue”, that set an important turning point in the race between human and artificial intelligence in the late 1990s.

Chess players are now facing a new threat: indoor air pollution. Air pollution represents an invisible and omnipresent enemy to human health. Studies have shown that exposure to air particles (PM2.5) damages cardiovascular, respiratory, and brain health, as well as the performance of students in tests. Every year, about seven million people globally. Are chess players able to win the game against air pollution?

The paper “The Impact of Indoor Air Quality & Strategic Decision Making”, accepted for publication in the journal Management Science, looks into this question. The authors are Steffen Künn, an associate professor in the School of Business and Economics at Maastricht University, the Netherlands; Palacios, who is a postdoctoral researcher at MIT’s Center for Real Estate; and Nico Pestel, an associate professor in the School of Business and Economics at Maastricht University.

In this paper, the authors installed air pollution sensors in the rooms where official chess tournaments were performed for three years to test whether players are impaired by air pollution. The results of the study show that professional chess players make mistakes 26.3% more often, and errors are of larger magnitude when the room is having high levels of air particles (PM2.5). The results indicate that players are most vulnerable to air pollution in the most critical moment: When they are under tight time pressure! Official chess games require players to make 40 moves in about 110 minutes. Otherwise, they lose the game automatically. This stage of the game tends to be the most decisive, since players tend to be forced to select their moves in a few seconds. When the authors look into the different stages of the game, they find that air pollution hits the strongest when players are about in this stage of the game, suggesting that time pressure exacerbates the cognitive damage of pollution.

Figure: Impact of indoor air quality on the probability of making meaningful errors in Chess


Source: Figure 4 in manuscript “The Impact of Indoor Air Quality & Strategic Decision Making”

What can we learn from Chess? Beyond the iconic view of chess. Chess is a valuable laboratory to gain insights into how air pollution affects numerous tasks and occupations in our society. The skills required to select an optimal chess move resembles closely to the skills that managers and other individuals performing cognitive non-routine occupations require in their daily jobs. Similar to the negotiations occurring in the board rooms of companies, deciding on a move in a chess game is a complex cognitive task, which requires people to engage their intuition, perception, and problem-solving skills. In addition, chess games require individuals to solve cognitively demanding complex problems under tight time pressure and high stakes. This context is similar to the situation faced by students taking tests, or emergency care doctors determining the right treatment for critically ill patients.

Takeaway: Next time the deadline for an important decision is approaching, make sure you are in a room with good air quality if you do not want to increase the chances to make a terrible mistake!

Do you want to know what you can do to protect yourself against air pollution? See EPA recommendations and guidelines here.