Social Processing Effects

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.

Social Facilitation

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.

Social Loafing

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.

Köhler Effect

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.

Audience Effects

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.


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  1. Weber, B., & Hertel, G. (2007). Motivation gains of inferior group members: A meta-analytical review. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 973–993.
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