Social processing effects are grounded within individuals’ assessments and interpretations of social contextual information. Because sport and exercise psychology (SEP) is the scientific study of how people and their behaviors affect and are affected by the environmental contexts in which they operate, social processing effects can best be viewed through a social–psychological lens. The social context in sport and exercise settings is shaped by members of the audience, teammates, and opponents. This entry is focused on social processing effects by exploring the topics of social facilitation, social loafing, the Köhler effect, and audience effects.
The influence that others have on a performance, social facilitation, is a notion that can be traced back to the work of Norman Triplett in 1898. Through Triplett’s studies of bike race performance and children winding a fishing reel, he noted that individuals tended to perform better in the presence of others when compared to performing the same task in isolation. Triplett attributed this phenomenon to what he termed dynamogeny (i.e., the presence of a coacting performer resulting in the expenditure of additional, otherwise dormant, energy). Floyd Allport was the first to use the term social facilitation as he found that individuals generally performed better on a variety of tasks when they were grouped with others, as opposed to sitting alone. Both Triplett and Allport were aware, however, that the presence of others did not universally result in performance improvement, as some participants had been observed to perform worse when being observed or coacting with other individuals.
Developing an explanation for inconsistencies that had been observed when performing in the presence of others took until the 1960s and the work of Robert Zajonc. Zajonc argued that when individuals engage in coactive tasks (i.e., similar tasks but independent of each other) or performed in the presence of others (i.e., audience member and groups of two or more), behavior and performance can best be explained utilizing drive theory—postulated by Clark Hull in 1943. Specifically, Zajonc posited that the presence of others elicits an arousal response, which increases the chance that the dominant response will occur. Therefore, during the initial stages of skill acquisition, the presence of others would be more debilitating than facilitating; whereas, once a skill is mastered, the company of others would be more likely to positively affect performance. Zajonc highlighted how this relationship held true in a multitude of studies regardless of whether the behavior was focused on trying to achieve a goal or centered on trying to avoid punishment. Other researchers have since noted that a two-factor model (i.e., arousal × skill mastery) explaining social facilitation may be too simplistic. For instance, people are often more distracted from the important tenets of a task when an audience is present compared to when alone. Thus, the explanations of social facilitation must also include the element of distraction or attentional changes to fully understand and operationalize this concept. Finally, while Zajonc’s model did make significant strides in explaining how social facilitation operates, it did suffer from the limitation of social facilitation only being defined as the mere presence of others with no interaction between participants and observers—something that rarely occurs in sport. Nickolas Cottrell highlighted the difficulty with this limitation and asserted that an additional factor of evaluation apprehension needed to be included when examining how arousal levels affect performance. In particular, Cottrell and colleagues found that when skilled individuals participated in a verbal habits recollection task—with group members blindfolded—individuals did not perform as well as when individuals were being observed by others unknown to the participant. This finding helped to spur on other research related to the effect audience members can have on individuals if the participants believe their performance is being evaluated.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from social facilitation (i.e., the presence of others facilitating an individual’s performance) is the phenomenon of social loafing (i.e., the reduction in an individual’s efforts when working in a group setting). In 1913, Max Ringelmann had reported that individuals had the tendency to become less productive as the group size they were working in increased (i.e., the “Ringelmann Effect”) after measuring performances of individuals in pushing and pulling a horizontal load in different size groups. The social loafing construct was subsequently formalized in the 1970s in independent research efforts lead by Alan Ingham and Bibb Latané, who presented evidence indicating that motivational losses were primarily responsible for maladaptive group productivity behavior. Specifically, four main explanations have been proposed to explicate why social loafing occurs: the allocation strategy, the minimizing strategy, the free rider proposal, and the sucker effect. The allocation strategy contends that people are motivated to work with other individuals; however, they also save their best effort for solo performances that have direct reflections upon themselves. The minimizing strategy suggests that people seek to complete necessary tasks but with the least amount of effort required; thus, because of increased potential and lack of accountability in groups, social loafing occurs quite frequently. The free rider proposal asserts that group members reduce their efforts because of the belief that others will compensate to complete the necessary task(s). Finally, the sucker effect is the result of individuals reducing their own efforts in a group setting because they do not want to give a free ride to other, less productive members.
One mediating effect of social loafing is task cohesion—as specifically, swimmers who engaged in a relay race with teammates did not socially loaf when they displayed high levels of task cohesion, regardless of whether individual times were reported to the group or kept private. In contrast, swimmers who held low task cohesion socially loafed when individual relay times were kept private from other participants. Through a comprehensive meta-analysis, Steven Karau and Kipling Williams demonstrated that social loafing exists for physical skills, cognitive skills, and perceptual skills and is not confined to a specific segment of the population (i.e., Western cultures). Additionally, to correct the negative implications of social loafing, situations should be structured so that people perceive their contributions as unique, have a standard to which to compare their group’s performance, work on a task(s) they find intrinsically motivating, and view collective outcomes as important.
The Köhler effect is another social processing effect phenomenon that occurs when individuals work together on tasks. A key element in the manifestation of the Köhler effect is that the tasks to be completed must be conjunctive in nature (i.e., tasks are not complete until all members contribute to the final product; thus, a group’s performance is roughly equal to that of the least effective group member). Under these conditions, supporters of the Köhler effect assert that weaker individuals in the group will expend more effort in a group setting than they would when working in isolation.
Otto Köhler first demonstrated the Köhler effect in the 1920s through motivational gains afforded in groups of two to three individuals over performing individually. Since that initial work, studies have confirmed the presence of the Köhler effect with a variety of physical tasks in laboratory settings and computer-based cognitive tasks. Furthermore, in a 2007 meta-analysis focused on the performance of the most inferior group member, Bernhard Weber and Guido Hertel found that the Köhler effect exists regardless of the demands of the task (i.e., physical or cognitive) and occurs with both men and women.
The two most accepted explanations for the Köhler effect involve the notions of social comparison and social indispensability. In the social comparison explanation, it is argued that individuals have an innate need to determine their level of ability; thus, individuals seek out others as a baseline to compare requisite skills. However, it is important to note that the comparison process is not arbitrary, as individuals tend compare themselves to others who are similar in some important aspect, yet performing better. Once this upward comparison occurs, individuals will learn about their discrepancies and begin a conscious process to reach or maintain an improved level of performance. The social indispensability explanation for the Köhler effect is premised on the idea that individuals tend to be especially cognizant of their own contributions toward the group’s overall success or failure. In a conjunctive task setting, the most inferior group member is highly motivated because of the belief that his or her contributions to group success are more valuable than those of the higher performing members of the group. Regardless of the mechanism operating to produce the Köhler effect, benefits of this phenomenon include increased group motivation and performance, both of which are adaptive behavior traits for sport teams where all individuals share a role in a group’s impending success or failure. Furthermore, Deborah Feltz and colleagues found that the Köhler effect has also been shown to exist in exercise settings regardless of whether participants exercise in real or virtual environments.
A final concept to examine is the effects that audience members can have on performers. Research in this area developed from social facilitation research—and specifically, the attempt to understand the interplay of arousal and evaluation apprehension, previously noted through Zajonc’s and Cottrell’s work. In the realm of sport, research has indicated that the presence of an audience can have cognitive and a physiological effects.
Exploring cognitive aspects first, when a performer exhibits a behavior that conflicts with his or her perception of performance, a change in self-concept may result. This process—which Dianne Tice termed internalization—is more pronounced when behaviors are viewed by an audience compared to a performance that takes place in isolation. Turning attention to physiological effects, it has been demonstrated that the presence of an audience can increase arousal; however, the performer must also experience evaluation apprehension, attentional conflict, and an increased presence of social monitoring for the greatest arousal changes to occur. Additionally, performers may also respond differently to increased arousal based on their skill level and situational assessment. For instance, if an individual believes he or she has the skills to meet an impending challenge, it more likely that this person will view the situation as a challenge, as compared to someone who questions his or her competence and is more likely to view an identical situation as a threat.
The distinction between perception of challenge versus threat may help to explain the home court advantage effect from a psychological perspective. Specifically, it has been noted that home teams display more assertive skills and visiting teams commit more fouls and penalties than home teams. It is hypothesized that this relationship exists because while trying to successfully navigate the increased assertive play of home teams, the visiting teams experience more frustration; therefore, they engage in more maladaptive behavior (i.e., the home court advantage may actually be an away court disadvantage). Of course, it also possible that playing in front of a home crowd could impair performance by participants experiencing additional pressure to succeed. This heightened self-awareness can cause individuals to direct attention to elements of the task that are automatic or already well-learned skills; thus, the individual begins to “press” to succeed and may end up “choking” under the pressure. While it is known that home teams in a variety of sports (e.g., basketball, football, and ice hockey) win a majority of their games, a study by Steven Bray, including 20 years of National Hockey League games using archival data, demonstrated that while playing at home is an advantage for any team, high-quality teams experience a much greater home ice advantage than low-quality teams (70% vs. 52% success rate). Thus, it appears that a moderating variable in audience effects—related to home court advantage—is the quality of the home team.
In conclusion, social processing effects are central in SEP because they often involve social interaction in some form or another. Whether this social interaction is competitive or noncompetitive, participants routinely learn from watching and emulating others, receive directions and corrections from coaches and teachers, and are subject to observation in the process. As a consequence, the effects and constructs discussed in this entry do not exhaust the array of potential social influences but they serve to highlight the power of social processing effects on individuals engaging in sport and exercise behavior.
- Bray, S. R. (1999). The home advantage from an individual team perspective. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 11, 116–125.
- Feltz, D. F., Kerr, N., & Irwin, B. (2011). Buddy up: The Köhler effect applied to health games. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33, 506–527.
- Ingham, A. G., Levinger, G., Graves, J., & Peckham, V. (1974). The Ringelmann Effect: Studies of group size and group performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 10, 371–384.
- Karau, S. J., & Williams, K. D. (1993). Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 681–706.
- Kravitz, D. A., & Martin, B. (1986). Ringelmann rediscovered: The original article. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 936–941.
- Latané, B., Williams, K., & Harkins, S. (1979). Many hands make light the work: The causes and consequences of social loafing. Journal of Personal Sociology and Psychology, 37, 822–832.
- Tice, D. M. (1992). Self-concept change and self-presentation: The looking glass self is also a magnifying glass. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 435–451.
- Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamegonic factors in pacemaking and competition. Journal of American Psychology, 9, 507–553.
- Weber, B., & Hertel, G. (2007). Motivation gains of inferior group members: A meta-analytical review. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 973–993.
- Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149, 269–274.