Social facilitation is a phenomenon that explains how individual performance improves in the presence of a group compared to working on the task alone.
Have you found yourself more attentive in the library? The moment you step in and take a seat, the urge to read shows out of nowhere. Many students compel themselves to visit the library before the exam because they know they’d not let the time spent there go to waste.
But, have you wondered why that happens? Is that due to the calm environment? Is it due to the large number of books stacked up? Sure, those factors contribute too. But, one of the other reasons for your improved performance is the presence of other people. When those around you are reading, you don’t want to look like an idiot wasting your time in the library. You make an effort because you don’t want others to judge you.
Such behavior is called social facilitation. In this article, we’ll cover this interesting phenomenon, the types of it along with examples.
- What is social facilitation?
- The two types of social facilitation:
- Examples of social facilitation
- Research on social facilitation
- Why does social facilitation occur?
- Other pointers about social facilitation:
Social facilitation is a psychological phenomenon where the performance of an individual improves in the presence of others. A competitor, an audience, or even a mere spectator can cause such an effect.
But, such behavior does not apply to every scenario. Whether an individual exhibits better performance depends on the task at hand. Social facilitation works best when one performs a simple or well-learned task. However, for a complex or new task, the reverse effect called social inhibition can occur thereby hindering normal performance.
Social facilitation is closely related to social loafing and Yerkes Dodson’s law.
Social facilitation falls under two major types.
1. Co-action effect:
The co-action effect explains how you perform a task better when others are doing the same thing. For example, in the gym, you’re working out not only to burn calories but also because the others around you are exercising too. You don’t want others to consider you a lazy lump of clay, do you?
Or, sometimes you want to do better(or at least the best you can) than the people around you. Even if the event isn’t a competition and no one will distribute prizes, you still want to come out a winner.
For example, if you go on a group trek, you will want to reach the summit sooner than the others even if you have not met them before. The sheer urge to win pushes you to do your best. You put one foot forward. Then another. Your lungs scream for air and your thighs yearn for rest, nevertheless, you push yourself to keep going.
2. Audience effect:
Your performance can enhance when you have spectators watching your act.
This variation of social facilitation is best explained by keeping an artist in mind. For example, some singers perform better when they have a large crowd watching them compared to their practice at home. Athletes, CEOs, dancers, actors, musicians bring the best out of themselves when they’re watched by a group of spectators.
But, you don’t need to reach a celebrity status to experience the audience effect. Even if your friends watch you perform standup comedy in the living room of your house, social facilitation can trigger a stellar performance.
That said, an audience, no matter how small can also create anxiety thereby making your act worser than your genuine ability. For example, if you’ve friends have never heard you sing, the pressure of expectations can make you falter.
1. Home games in sport
Have you noticed how teams perform better at home than an away game? The rules remain the same, but the performance differs to an extent that not only is it visible in the naked eye, but also on statistical analysis.
One reason teams have the home advantage is that they practice on the venue often and grow familiar with it. But, in addition, the cheers from the thousands of hardcore fans provide an adrenaline rush to win one for the team.
2. Group workouts
If you enter the gym and find nobody else, you have a tendency to go easy. But, when a few members walk in a few minutes later, you notch up your intensity even though you’re working out on your own.
In recent years, group workouts have gained popularity. For those who haven’t heard about them, in a group workout, a bunch of people gather at a specified time and follow the lead of a trainer. Each person performs the same exercise at the same time. Zumba is one such example.
When you’re performing the same act like the others in the group, you behave like you’re at the Olympics. You sweat it out to be among the best even if no one keeps a tab on how people are doing. At the very least, you don’t want to come across as the worst of the lot.
The behavior applies in a milder form to other forms of exercise too. You’re motivated to run faster and longer or lift heavier when you have a partner than while you’re working out alone.
Such behavior is unspoken and works in the mind without any conscious attempt.
3. Art & stage performances
Some artists perform better when they have a galore of spectators watching them. Such behavioral tendency applies to any form of art such as singing, dancing, mimicry, standup comedy, and others.
The performance boost can vary based on the level of expertise. The euphoria of the fans can stimulate a seasoned artist to deliver a captivating show while the added pressure can cause a beginner artist to mess up.
4. Children eating food
You must have observed parents using an uncanny trick on their kid who refuses to eat. They mention, “Look, your brother has almost finished his food already and you’re not even halfway. Let’s see who finishes the fastest.”
Though parents do not mention any prize for winning the competition ‘Who finishes their meal first’, kids fall for it and make an attempt to eat to win.
The Triplett experiments:
The initial observations of social facilitation date way back in history to 1897. Norman Triplett was the first researcher who wanted to study the effect of an audience on a performance.
Since Triplett wanted genuine statistics, his first study involved timing a cyclist both during competition and at practice to spot the change. To his surprise, the numbers showed that cyclists clocked faster times while racing against a competitor compared to solo practice to beat individual records. He came up with a theory that a competitive spirit causes higher motivation which causes the athlete to pedal faster.
To test the theory further, in 1898 Triplett designed a similar experiment for children. Participants had to perform a simple task, which in this case was winding a string. Yet again, results showed that children completed the task faster when others were performing the same task.
Triplett pointed out that the sheer presence of others makes a person more competitive.
Experiments by Floyd Airport
Though the research on the subject started before the 20th century, Floyd Alport coined the term social facilitation only in 1924. He built upon Triplett’s experiments. Floyd’s research had participants performing different tasks such as word associations and multiplication assessments. The results matched what Triplett had observed. Participants performed better in the presence of a group than they did while working alone.
The pattern was well noticed, and researchers believed that the improved performance was due to a better psychological response when people see or hear others making the same movement.
Experiments by Hazel Markus:
In 1978, Hazel Markus added another dimension to social facilitation research. He wanted to test if the mere presence of a person can affect individual performance. To test the theory, he measured the performance of a trivial task – dressing and undressing. The experiments also involved tracking performance with familiar and unfamiliar clothing.
During the first set of tests, performance times saw an improvement with well-known dressing and undressing tasks when a person was present. Markus measured the difference in the presence of a passive inattentive person vs an attentive spectator. But, the performance time did not have any significant difference.
But, when participants had to dress up with an unfamiliar outfit, the presence of another person made people clock slower times than they did individually.
Robert Zajonc performed similar experiments which demonstrated that the presence of other people causes performance to increase with simple tasks and decrease with complex tasks. Zajonc’s attributed the cause behind the difference to Yerkes-Dodson’s law which states that pressure helps improve performance for simple or moderately difficult tasks until a certain point.
Social facilitation is a psychological tendency and it does not occur every single time. Besides, each person will have different reasons to exhibit such behavior. Research attributes three major reasons behind our urge to perform better in the presence of others.
1. Cognitive factor:
When you’re aware that others are looking at you, your brain becomes more conscious about your actions. As a result, you pay more attention to doing a good job.
That said, not everyone benefits from such awareness. Some people become more focused while some others get distracted. For example, reading in a library helps some people concentrate better because they believe others are doing the same thing. But some others cannot focus in the library because others are present and watching them. I’m one such person myself.
2. Psychological factor:
How much social facilitation boosts your performance also depends on how good you are at the skill. If you’re an expert with an extensive amount of practice, the presence of others will help you do better. But if you’re skills are only average, chances are, you’ll do worse than normal due to company. The same applies to novel or demanding tasks which you’re not familiar with.
3. Affective factor:
The presence of other people has a different effect on different people. For some, it can cause anxiety while for some others, it can provide motivation to do better.
For example, stepping on the stage can bother you so much that no matter how good you’re at the task, you’d invariably do worse because you’re scared of being judged.
Which tasks show an improvement in performance?
As per current research, the best improvement due to social facilitation occurs with well-learned skills. New and complex tasks have a reverse effect where your performance becomes worse in the presence of others.
In 1994, John M. de Castro published his research on the relationship between social facilitation and food intake. The behavior goes back to the experiments that another researcher named Bayer performed on animals in the 1930s. Bayer had allowed a chicken to eat as much wheat as it wanted. Soon after the chicken had enough, another hungry chicken was introduced. As soon as the second chicken began to eat, the first chicken, though full started eating again. The same behavior was observed in pigs too.
Like chickens, human beings increase their food intake in the presence of others. If you’re paired with another person who consumes a large amount of food, your intake will likely increase. Other factors such as how familiar you are with the person have an influence too. The more you know the person, the more comfortable you are with eating more food together.
In the food consumption experiments, men and food had a small difference in behavior too. Men ate 36% more food in the presence of others, while for women, that figure was 40%.
Men and women can have different performance impacts due to social facilitation.
If you’re in the presence of a group that you know has higher prejudice, your performance can have a positive or negative effect when compared to the presence of unknowns or lesser judgmental people.
Social facilitation has shown a higher effect on people who are younger. Children have a higher tendency to be more competitive about tasks than adults.
Even though the topic of social facilitation has gone through extensive research, we don’t have concrete evidence to explain the reason behind the phenomenon. Psychologists still debate if the improvement occurs due to the sheer presence or because we know people will evaluate us. Researchers also aren’t sure if social facilitation is in our genes or if it’s a learned behavior due to society.
Social facilitation is a well-researched concept which ties in together with several other psychological topics and cognitive biases.
The key takeaway from the subject is that the presence of others can cause a positive or negative effect on your performance based on the circumstances. Such awareness can help you be better prepared when you have to perform tasks in the presence of others.
Markus. (1978, July 01). The effect of mere presence on social facilitation: An unobtrusive test. Retrieved March 19, 2021, from https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/22584
Martens, R., & Landers, D. (2004, August 27). Evaluation potential as a determinant of coaction effects. Retrieved March 19, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0022103172900248
Hamilton, A., & Lind, F. (2016). Audience effects: What can they tell us about social neuroscience, theory of mind and autism? Retrieved March 19, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5095155/#:~:text=An%20audience%20effect%20arises%20when%20a%20participant’s%20behaviour%20changes%20because,70’s%2C%20with%20less%20interest%20since.
Mcleod, S. (n.d.). Social facilitation. Retrieved March 19, 2021, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/Social-Facilitation.html
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.