Social Facilitation Definition
Social facilitation refers to the general phenomenon that physical and cognitive performance is improved when other people are present (and possibly watching the performer). Psychologists use the term social facilitation/inhibition to indicate that performance is sometimes facilitated while being observed, and other times inhibited in the presence of others. The critical factor for determining whether performance is facilitated or inhibited is whether the task that the individual is performing is well learned (simple) or novel (difficult). Research has shown that well-learned tasks are facilitated under observation, whereas novel tasks are inhibited under observation.
Social Facilitation History and Background
One of the first documented studies in social psychology appeared in Norman Triplett’s 1898 article “The Dynamogenic Factors in Pacemaking and Competition,” which described observational data from competitive cyclists and an experimental study on the speed at which children could spin a fishing reel. Triplett demonstrated that competitive cyclists paired with other cyclists yielded faster racing times than did cyclists racing against the clock. In the experimental section of the article, children were instructed to spin a fishing reel as quickly as possible to move a figure along a racecourse, either with other children (coaction) or alone. Children in the coaction setting were more likely to spin the reel faster than were those performing the task alone. These findings led to the conclusion that the presence of others, particularly coacting others, improved performance.
By the mid-20th century, social facilitation research had waned. A cursory examination of the literature revealed inconsistent findings regarding how the presence of others affected performance. Though it appeared that performance improved when in the presence of others, not all the data supported this conclusion. Even in Triplett’s research, only 50% of the children performed faster when coacting, and among the remaining children 25% performed the same and 25% performed worse when paired with others.
In the mid-1960s, Robert Zajonc published an influential article on social facilitation that brought order to these inconsistent findings. Zajonc argued that the presence of others could bring about facilitated or impaired performance depending on the type of task being performed. When the task at hand was well learned, observers or coactors could facilitate performance, but when the task was novel, the presence of others could inhibit performance. Zajonc argued that the underlying reason for these differences was an arousal or drive component. According to the drive theory, the presence of others evoked an undifferentiated arousal or drive that increased the likelihood of a dominant response. (The dominant response is whatever response is most likely in that exact situation.) In well-learned or easy tasks, the dominant response would be the correct answer. In novel or complex tasks, however, the dominant response is likely to be the incorrect answer. Zajonc’s distinction explained the inconsistencies in social facilitation studies and why tasks that involved well-established and fluid responses were improved by the presence of an audience or coactors, but tasks that required problem-solving skills were impaired.
Zajonc demonstrated support for this theory in one of the classic social psychology studies. Instead of studying task performances of college sophomores, Zajonc enlisted 72 female cockroaches (Blattis orientalis, to be exact) to run an easy or a difficult maze. In addition to the difficulty of the maze, Zajonc manipulated whether the cockroach ran the maze with an audience of other cockroaches (the cockroaches were in clear boxes adjacent to the maze) or without a cockroach audience. The final critical factor was whether cockroaches ran the maze alone or paired with another cockroach. Zajonc found that the presence of con-specifics (i.e., members of the same species) as either coactors or as observers (the audience) increased running time in the easy maze, but decreased running time in the difficult maze relative to running times in the alone condition. These findings were interpreted as support for the drive hypothesis of social facilitation, specifically that the presence of conspecifics increased general arousal states and that arousal facilitated dominant responses and impaired nondominant responses.
Zajonc’s provocative theory and empirical data renewed interest in social facilitation research and a flurry of empirical investigations followed. As a way to make sense of the many studies, researchers in the 1980s examined all the studies simultaneously (a process called meta-analysis) to extract generalizable constructs and gauge the reliability of the phenomenon. After reviewing 241 studies comprising more than 24,000 subjects, the authors concluded that the presence of others did indeed inhibit complex performance accuracy and decreased speed of responding. Also consistent with the theory, the meta-analysis showed that the presence of others facilitated simple performance speed, but there was less evidence that accuracy of performance increased in the presence of others. This finding could be caused by ceiling effects; performance is already so close to perfect in simple tasks that the additive benefit derived from the presence of others may be difficult to detect.
Why Is Performance Improved or Impaired?
The meta-analysis strongly supported social psychologists’ claims that these effects were robust. However, the demonstration of social facilitation/inhibition, though important, does not address the question of why the effects occur. What is the process by which performance is facilitated or inhibited? In social facilitation research, social psychologists have focused on three reasons to explain social facilitation/impairment effects. These reasons can be broadly construed as physiological, cognitive, and affective mechanisms. The physiological explanation was discussed briefly earlier—the generalized drive and arousal hypothesis; the cognitive explanation focuses on distraction and attention; and the affective component focuses on the anxiety and self-presentational aspects related to performing in front of others.
The drive-arousal hypothesis received some support, using a variety of methodological techniques. In a naturalistic setting, social psychologists examined running speeds of joggers who were filmed unobtrusively as they rounded a footpath. The experimenters manipulated the presence of others using three conditions: mere presence, evaluative, and alone conditions. The experimenters operationalized these conditions using a female confederate placed strategically along the footpath. As runners rounded a bend in the footpath, the female confederate sat with her back to the runners (mere presence), the female confederate sat facing the runners (evaluative), or the female confederate was not present (alone). Only runners in the evaluative condition (confronted with a person watching them run) significantly accelerated their running pace, demonstrating support for the drive aspect of facilitation effects.
Though the studies examining running time were consistent with the arousal explanation, they did not directly measure physiological arousal. Not until advances in the field of psychophysiology (the science of linking psychological states with physiological responses) occurred were social psychologists able to properly test the arousal hypothesis of social facilitation effects. A century after the publication of Triplett’s seminal article, social psychophysiologist Jim Blascovich tested the arousal mechanisms that were believed to underlie social facilitation effects. This research found that as Zajonc had originally hypothesized, present others did significantly increase sympathetic activation during performance tasks relative to alone conditions (e.g., heart rate and other cardiac measures increased). However, even though general autonomic reactivity increased for everyone in the audience condition, very different physiological profiles were produced, depending on whether the cognitive task was novel or well learned. Specifically, people completing the well-learned task in the presence of an audience had changes in cardiovascular responses consistent with a benign (healthier) profile. These changes included stronger contractility force of the heart ventricles, more blood ejected from the heart, and overall dilation of the arterioles, which allows faster blood flow to the periphery. In stark contrast, when people completed a novel task in the presence of an audience, their cardiovascular responses were consistent with a malignant (unhealthier) profile that included greater contractile force and co-occurring decreases in blood volume (indicating less heart efficiency), and constriction of the arterioles. This research demonstrated that although Zajonc was correct in identifying arousal as a critical explanation in social facilitation/inhibition effects, arousal is not unidirectional. Instead, while in the presence of others, different cardiovascular profiles co-occur when completing novel versus well-learned tasks.
Evidence for the cognitive mechanisms underlying social facilitation effects are best articulated by the distraction-conflict theory. This theory suggests that the presence of others is distracting and that distraction creates cognitive overload, which restricts attentional focus. This results in different effects in simple versus complex tasks. In simple tasks performance is improved because attentional focus on present others results in screening out nonessential stimuli, leading to better performance. In complex tasks, attentional focus impairs performance because the complex tasks require attention to wider ranges of stimulus cues. Some persuasive evidence for this explanation of social facilitation/inhibition effects comes from studies examining attentional focus as a result of present others using the Stroop task. In the Stroop task, participants are instructed to say aloud the ink color of a word. This task is difficult because the word is a color word printed in an incongruent color (e.g., the word red would be printed in blue ink); participants have to say the word blue—the ink color—and simultaneously suppress the desire to say the word red. The Stroop task thus requires the inhibition of the dominant response (reading) and requires the person to focus on the details of the printed word. In support of the distraction-conflict theory, researchers found that, compared with the alone condition, participants in the audience condition had less Stroop interference, meaning that attention shifted away from the central or dominant response tendency (reading) and toward processing the stimulus details (the ink color).
A final related explanation for social facilitation effects is one that focuses on the affective responses associated with being evaluated in the presence of others. This explanation emphasizes the importance of self-presentational concerns related to performing in front of others. Some psychologists have argued that the most significant consequence of an audience (or coactors) is that their presence shapes the behaviors of the performer and emphasizes the importance of making a good impression or avoiding a bad impression. To the extent that individuals feel that they can self-present positively while being observed, which they would be more likely to believe if the tasks were simple or well learned, then present others would facilitate performance. If, on the other hand, the task is difficult or novel, the individual may expect to perform poorly. This anxiety or evaluation apprehension associated with performing well may ironically worsen their performance. Persuasive evidence for this idea comes from studies that found no differences in task performance when participants performed a task alone or in the presence of a blindfolded audience. These findings suggest that the ability of the present others to evaluate the performance is critical to social facilitation/ inhibition effects.
Several related constructs appear in the social psychological literature, but the construct most commonly confused with social facilitation is social loafing. Social loafing is the tendency for individuals to perform worse in a group setting. For example, when a group of participants was asked to pull on a rope, they pulled with less strength than when pulling the rope alone as an individual. This might seem to be a direct contradiction to social facilitation. However, the constructs can be clearly differentiated. Social loafing is more likely to occur when the task performance is evaluated at a group level. Therefore, any one individual’s performance cannot be evaluated. In contrast, social facilitation occurs when an individual’s performance can be directly evaluated and the performance is unambiguously related back to the individual.
Implications of Social Facilitation
Unlike other contemporary psychological theories, social facilitation/inhibition theory predicts changes in performance in both physical and cognitive domains. The utility and application of these findings are relevant to educational settings, sports psychology, and organizational behavior, to name a few. Implications from this theory are particularly relevant to educational settings where the goal is both effective learning and testing of knowledge. Social facilitation/inhibition theory suggests that to increase learning comprehension, one should try to learn new material while alone (in this case, the material being learned is presumed to be novel, difficult, and non-dominant), but one should be tested on well-learned material in the presence of others.
In addition, sports psychologists use the knowledge gleaned from social facilitation/inhibition theory on how to best improve physical performance in observed domains. They can predict that when athletes are competing against a clock or their own time, performance will be worse compared with environments in which athletes are competing against a present other. Similarly, games or events that have spectators may produce better performance than do games with no spectators. An interesting application of the theory is the championship choke, which suggests that the home field advantage may actually be a disadvantage. Related to the affective mechanisms of social facilitation, Roy Baumeister has argued that competing in the most important games in the presence of a home crowd increases one’s level of self-awareness, which would not be the case for the visiting team. This increased self-consciousness, like social inhibition effects, can produce worse performance.
On some occasions, dominant responses are unhealthy, and presence of others may encourage these responses. Social facilitation has been applied to the study of activities such as teenage drinking, drug use, overeating, and even acting with more prejudice. In a recent study, psychologists showed that people most concerned about appearing prejudiced acted more prejudiced with others present than when alone. The authors argued that observers decreased cognitive control, resulting in more (unintended) prejudice. In other words, observers facilitated biases and prejudice.
The presence of evaluative others affects one’s performance, for better or worse. Whether the effect is positive (better test scores, more touchdowns) or negative (forgetting lines during a presentation, dropping a pass on a football field) depends on whether the task is familiar or novel, the nature of the audience (friendly or hostile, friends or strangers), and one’s physiological responses (benign or maladaptive).
- Blascovich, J., Mendes, W. B., Hunter, S., & Salomon, K. (1999). Social facilitation as challenge and threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 68-77.
- Bond, C. F., & Titus, L. J. (1983). Social facilitation: A meta-analysis of 241 studies. Psychological Bulletin, 94, 265-292.
- Geen, R. G. (1991). Social motivation. Annual Review of Psychology, 42, 377-399.
- Harkins, S. G. (1987). Social loafing and social facilitation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 23, 1-18.
- Huguet, P., Galvaing, M. P., Monteil, J. M., & Dumas, F. (1999). Social presence effects in the Stroop task: Further evidence for an attentional view of social facilitation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77,1011-1025.
- Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. American Journal of Psychology, 9, 507-533.
- Zajonc, R. B., Heingartner, A., & Herman, E. M. (1969). Social enhancement and impairment of performance in the cockroach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 83-92.