Social facilitation

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Social facilitation is the tendency for people to do better on simple tasks when in the presence of other people. This implies that whenever people are being watched by others, they will do well on things that they are already good at doing.[1] The idea that social evaluation has an impact on performance sparked interest in the psychological reasons behind this phenomenon, leading to further research surrounding the Social Facilitation Theory and its implications.

This theory suggests that the mere or imagined presence of people in social situations creates an atmosphere of evaluation. Yerkes Dodson's Law Theory of Social Facilitation states that in this atmosphere, "the mere presence of other people will enhance the performance in speed and accuracy of well-practiced tasks, but will degrade the performance of less familiar tasks." [2]

For example, a star soccer player may perform better in his game when more people are watching him perform. However, if a person is asked to fix a car’s engine during a road race but is not a mechanic, he will not perform as well if he is aware of the presence of others than he would in a situation when he feels less evaluated or pressured, like just trying to fix a car in his garage.

Social facilitation has occasionally been attributed to the fact that certain people are more susceptible to social influence, with the argument that person factors can make these people more aware of evaluation. These personality characteristics may cause some people to be more greatly affected by the presence of their observers.

The role of social facilitation is important to consider in social situations, because it implies that people’s performance does not rely solely on their abilities, but is also impacted by the internal awareness of being evaluated. Performance can be greatly affected by situation factors, thus making it possible to entirely alter the outcome of a situation. This can be very important when considering how anyone will perform under evaluation and how to potentially prepare for those situations. For example, if a professional basketball player practices shooting free throws with fake audience noise in the background, he will not feel as if he is under as much evaluation in a real game situation. This is because the noise-pressured free throws will start to become a simple task rather than a complex task as he practices more. Although he will know that the fake noise is not evaluating him the same way that real crowd would, he is adjusting his awareness of the potential evaluation, and is thus trying to combat any harm that social facilitation could bring to his shooting abilities.

Major theoretical approaches[edit]

Norman Triplett pioneered research on social facilitation in 1898. [1] Triplett found that cyclists had faster race times when in the presence of other cyclists. Triplett theorized that the faster times were because the presence of others made individuals more competitive. Further research led Triplett to theorize that the presence of others increases individuals’ performances in other situations as well. Floyd Allport coined the term "social facilitation" for the first time in 1924.[1] Floyd Allport, commonly considered the founder of Social Psychology, conducted studies in which participants sat alone, or with other participants, and did a variety of tasks such as word association tasks and multiplication assessments. He found that people performed better when in a group setting than when alone for the majority of tasks.[3] (see Floyd Henry Allport). At this time, social facilitation simply meant an "increase in response merely from the sight or sound of others making the same movement." [1]

Activation theory[edit]

In 1965, Robert Zajonc proposed the first Activation Theory for social facilitation. Zajonc’s Generalized Drive Hypothesis was the first theory that addressed why sometimes the presence of others increases performance, and sometimes the presence of others decreases performance. Zajonc argued that the presence of others serves as a source of arousal, and heightened arousal increases the likelihood of an organism to do well-learned or habitual responses. For this reason, arousal improves performance on simple (well-learned) tasks, but impairs performance on complex (not well-learned) tasks (see Yerkes-Dodson law). Zajonc’s reasoning was based on Yerkes-Dodson’s law, which holds that performance works like an inverse "U" function. This means that an individual’s optimal drive is higher for simpler, or well-practiced tasks, and that the same individual’s optimal drive is lower for more complex, or less-practiced tasks. The presence of other people further arouses us and increases our drive level, so if a task is simple, an individual’s performance will be enhanced because of the high levels of energy, but performance will be diminished on more complex tasks.[2] Zajonc tested his theories by having people complete word association tasks alone and again in the presence of others. Zajonc also learned that Social Facilitation was not a phenomenon restricted to human beings, since he found that cockroaches ran through easy mazes faster when other cockroaches were watching them or also running through the maze (coactors), than when the cockroaches ran through the maze alone. However, cockroaches ran slower through hard mazes when there were other cockroaches present or running through it than when they ran through it alone.[2] Some researchers have found that social facilitation effects occur when the organism is expecting negative feedback, but some experiments have shown that expecting positive feedback can effect social facilitation as well. [4]


Other activation theories include the Alertness Hypothesis, the Monitoring Hypothesis and the Challenge and Threat Hypothesis.[1] The Alertness Hypothesis says that people are uncertain of how observers will act while in the presence of others, so they become more alert (because the performer will be uncertain about how the observers will act in the situation) and the heightened alertness causes them to perform better on tasks. The Monitoring Hypothesis posits that Social Facilitation effects do not occur when the performer is familiar with the observers or are familiar with the situation, because the performer will know how the observer will act or what the situational factors will do, so the performer’s arousal will not increase. So, if the person is unfamiliar with the observers or the situation, he/she will experience uncertainty and arousal will increase, but not if he/she is familiar with them.[1] The Challenge and Threat Hypothesis states that people perform worse on complex tasks and better on simple tasks when in the presence of others because of the type of cardio-vascular response to the task. When performing a simple task in the presence of others, people show a normal cardio-vascular response. However, when performing a complex task in the presence of others, the cardio-vascular response is similar to that of a person in a threatening position. The normal cardio-vascular response serves to improve performance, but the threat-like cardiovascular response serves to impede performance.[1]

Evaluation approach[edit]

In 1968, Henchy and Glass proposed the first Evaluation Approach to social facilitation.[1] They proposed the Evaluation Apprehension Hypothesis that says it is not the mere presence of others that increases individual activation/arousal, but rather the fear of being evaluated. An extension of the Evaluation Apprehension Hypothesis is the Learned Drive Hypothesis, which states that activation increases, not because of fear of evaluation, but from just the act of being evaluated, or associating evaluation with a certain activity.[1]

Attention theories[edit]

In the 1980s, explanations shifted from Activation Theories to Attention Theories. Attention Theories that explain social facilitation include the Distraction-Conflict Hypothesis, the Overload Hypothesis, the Feedback-Loop Model (see Feedback), and the Capacity Model.[1]

In his Distraction-conflict Hypothesis, Robert Barron proposed that the level of performance on a task is predicted by the amount of distractions in the environment surrounding the task. The hypothesis states that distraction leads to arousal, so the presence of others always impedes performance on difficult tasks, but the number of distractions in the environment either improves or impedes the performance on simple tasks.[1]

The Overload Hypothesis works according to the Distraction-Conflict Hypothesis, saying that distracters do not lead to increased arousal, but rather to cognitive overload, (when an individual is bombarded with excessive information in their working memory),[5] and while in cognitive overload, individuals will do worse on complex tasks and better on more simple tasks.[1] Performance increases on simple tasks because the performers focus their attention on the new stimuli, instead of the irrelevant stimuli that is characteristic of simple tasks. Performance decreases on complex tasks because the performers focus on the distracters, but also need to focus on the relevant stimuli that are characteristic of complex tasks, and they cannot handle all of the information they are being presented with.[1]

The Feedback-Loop model postulates that when people feel they are being observed, they focus attention on themselves. While in this state, individuals become aware of the differences between their actual behavior and anticipated behavior. So, by Feedback-Loop Model, people do better in the presence of others because of this increased awareness about their behavior.[1]

The Capacity Model of social facilitation focuses on the role of types of information processing on performance in front of an audience, rather than the performance on different type of tasks (simple or complex) in front of an audience. The Capacity Model suggests that for tasks that require automatic information processing, the presence of others does not cause problems because the short-term memory is not required for automatic information processing, so performance quality increases. However, for tasks that require controlled information processing, the presence of others does impede the level of performance because the short-term memory is necessary to both focus attention on the audience, as well as the task at hand.[1]

Other theories[edit]

The Self-Presentation Approach argues that individuals want to appear competent in the presence of others. If the task is easy, the individual will want to make him/herself appear even more competent by doing exceptionally well on the task. However, if the task is difficult, they will fear that they will present themselves as incompetent, which will in turn make them embarrassed, and further impede their performance.[1]

Major empirical findings[edit]

In 1920, when asked to write out as many words as possible in response to a given word, 93% of participants produced more words in the presence of another person than alone.[6] However, when this study was replicated with individuals who stuttered when they spoke, 80% of the participants produced more words when alone rather than in the presence of another person.[7]

In 1969, Zajonc, Heingartner, and Herman demonstrated that social facilitation occurs not only in humans, but also in species with limited or no cognitive processing. They observed that it takes a cockroach a longer time to complete a complex maze in the presence of other cockroaches than when alone. They also observed that in a simple, straight runway, a cockroach reaches the end of the runway faster in the presence of other cockroaches than when alone. This experiment lends support to the theory that physiological arousal resulting from the presence of others leads to social facilitation effects.[8]

In 1973, Chapman ran an experiment and found that levels of laughter among 7–8-year-old children were highest when two children listened to funny material together (coaction condition). Furthermore, levels of laughter were higher when one child listened to funny material in the presence of another child (audience condition) than when one child listened to the funny material alone (alone condition). These results indicate that laughter is also socially facilitated.[9]

In June 1980, Forgas et al. conducted a field study of audience effects, looking at the performance of expert and novice squash players when observed by no audience, a male audience, and a female audience. Contrary to Zajonc’s drive-arousal theory, it was found that the effect of an audience on performance did not differ significantly between novice and expert players. This indicates that the other factors, such as cognitive variables and players’ interpretation of the audience’s presence, also influence players’ reactions to the presence of an audience in a natural setting.[10]

In 1982, people playing pool were being surreptitiously watched in order to identify skilled and unskilled players. Skilled players made at least two-thirds of their shots whereas unskilled players missed at least two-thirds of their shots. When the observer moved closer to the pool table and continued to watch, skilled players’ performance improved by 14% and the unskilled players’ performance dropped by more than 30%.[11]

In 1994, De Castro demonstrated that social facilitation affects food intake by extending the time spent eating a meal. His results also showed that the presence of family and friends, in comparison with the presence of mere companions, increases food intake to a greater degree, possibly due to the "release of inhibitory restraints on intake" that occurs when people feel more comfortable around people they are most familiar with. Furthermore, males ate 36% more food when with other people than when alone, and females ate 40% more food when with other people than when alone. De Castro attributes this to the time-extension model of social facilitation, as the time spent at a meal increased when the meal was a social occasion.[12]

In 2007, Rosenbloom et al. studied archival data from Jerusalem in 2004 and found that the presence of an additional person in the car during a driving license test decreased the likelihood that the testee would pass the driving test. Although the nature of the study made it impossible to distinguish one explanation of social facilitation from another, the findings generally support the basic premise of social facilitation theory.[13]

In 2008, college stduents were given a list of words and told to copy them as quickly as they could. The ‘easy task’ was to write out one list with their dominant hand and the ‘hard task’ was to write out another list with their nondominant hand. While completing the task, they were in the presence of an image of their favorite television personality (displayed on a computer screen) or an image of another character from the same show. When given the easy task, they wrote more words in the presence of their favorite character and when given the hard task, the favorite character inhibited their performance.[14]

In 2009, Dindo, Whiten, and de Waal studied the effect of social facilitation in capuchin monkeys. The monkeys in this study were required to complete a new foraging task, either alone or in a social group. While both sets of monkeys completed the task, those in the social group completed it three times faster than those monkeys that were alone. This increase in speed was facilitated through "observational learning and synchronization of behavior between group mates." [15]

Electronic Performance Monitoring[edit]

Researchers have used electronic performance monitoring to examine the effects of social facilitation, which is the established the tendency for individuals to improve performance while completing a task that is completed in the presence of others. This trend had previously been limited to face-to-face, or group settings. Electronic Performance Monitoring (EPM) on the other hand establishes the impact of social facilitation in a virtual sense. Electronic Performance monitoring is the utilization of information technologies, (i.e. computer networks) to track, evaluate, analyze and report information regarding an employee's performance. Many businesses have adopted this method in which workers activity is automatically monitored throughout the workday. This topic is of substantial interest to those in the field of social psychology due to underlying mechanism at work, namely the phenomena of social facilitation.

One study found that EPM did enhance productivity, but only in ways that are consistent with the effects of social facilitation. Employees working on a data entry task were monitored while working alone, with others, or as part of a cohesive group. Results indicated that EPM improved the performance of highly skilled workers, however it was found to interfere with the performance of those who were less skilled. Moreover, with the exception of those working in a cohesive group, Monitoring was found to increase workers’ feelings of stress and anxiety. On the other hand, participants responded more favorably to performance monitoring when they believed that they could turn off the monitoring and that only their job-related activities were being evaluated. Also, EPM was viewed more positively when workers were given the opportunity to participate in decisions regarding the use of the system. It can be concluded therefore that the effect of social facilitation is not limited to the physical presence of others, as a presence in a virtual sense has yielded supporting results. [16]

In 2009, Thompson, Sebastienelli and Murray conducted an experiment to determine the effect of electronic monitoring on students who used web-based training to learn new online search skills. They found that participants who were explicitly told that their training was being monitored performed markedly worse on a post-training skills test than participants who were unaware that their training was being monitored. These findings adhere to the basic premise of social facilitation and reveal that the heightened awareness of evaluation on complex tasks significantly hinders performance.[17]

Social Facilitation in Educational Settings[edit]

Groups are formed in a variety of educational settings around the world. Some examples include a group of physics students completing a laboratory exercise, a team of touch rugby players, a set of high school prefects, a group of students formed to brainstorm ideas for energy saving techniques and of course there are also study groups. While entry into most of these groups lies within the decision of an instructor or perhaps school management, a study group is unique in that it is formed by students themselves, for the purpose of studying course material or practicing skills developed in class.[18] Study groups are said to be self-organized and self-directive. The question is whether these study groups can offer individual members an advantage as compared to working alone. Some groups enhance members’ motivation and help students stay focused on their academic goals.[19] If a study group is effective, students will receive useful instruction from other group members and outperform students who are not part of study groups.[20] Students who have negative attitudes to study groups are generally outperformed by students who are committed to their groups and value the learning experiences they provide.[21] However, a study group may inhibit the acquisition of new information, concepts and skills as the presence of others can be distracting. These distractions can interfere during the early phases of learning, both in overt and covert practicing. In a study in which participants had to learn a list of words, they were too embarrassed to rehearse the material out aloud and as a consequence of this group pressure, their performance suffered.[22] Studies have shown that clinicians developing their therapeutic skills, students learning a new language, and athletes practicing their skills learn more rapidly in groups, at least initially, than when working individually. [23] [24] [25] [26] Once these individuals have mastered their skills, however, they should perform in groups whenever possible.[27]Zajonc suggested that the student study alone, preferably in an isolated cubicle, and arrange to write examinations surrounded by many other students, on stage, and in the presence of a large audience. The results of the examination would be beyond the student’s wildest expectations assuming that the material had been thoroughly learned beforehand.[28]


Social facilitation is a widespread phenomenon in society. As established above, social facilitation is the ability to excel on simple tasks and worse on complex tasks because of the presence of others. Many public tasks demonstrate the effects, both the costs and benefits, of social facilitation. From taking exams in a high school or college environment to performing in sporting events, people may perform better or fall short depending on the task’s complexity. In many experiments, people display signs of social facilitation even in every day tasks, such as driving - increasing ability when others are present. This effect can even be seen in animals, as displayed by Zajonc, Heingarter, and Herman’s aforementioned study on cockroaches.[8] Businesses can even use social facilitation to their advantage, through placing their employees in evaluated, group situations for simple tasks. Students can also place themselves in group situations for simple tests to improve their performance, or conversely, sit farther away from other classmates on complex tasks.


Social facilitation’s definition and explanations are not without controversy. Social psychologists first debate whether social facilitation in humans can be through mere presence effect, or whether it must be through evaluation. Many psychologists also question whether social facilitation and social loafing, an occurrence in which someone works less when in a group rather than by themselves, should be studied together, rather than separately, because of the overlap of conditions. One of the greatest controversies surrounding social facilitation is its origination. Psychologists continue to debate whether social facilitation is adopted through the innate biology of humans and animals, social learning through interaction with society, or individual interaction with other people, and not society in general. Further research and expansion of experiments and theories may begin to resolve, or further complicate, these issues.[29]


Today, there are many different theories about why social facilitation occurs. Norman Tripplett initiated the research on the phenomenon, and many psychologists have followed suit. Despite the large number of theories on the topic, today, most social psychologists agree that social facilitation is a result of both increased arousal, distraction and awareness of evaluation.

As a whole, the study of Social Facilitation has the potential to explain why certain people perform the way that they do. This can be applied to public speakers, sports players, classroom performance, or really any evaluated social situation. Until now, most of the findings have reinforced the original theories that people either perform better on simple tasks and worse on complex tasks when in the presence of other people.

Many studies have also shown that the effects are not limited to humans, but have been displayed in other species like Capuchin primates.[15] As research is becoming more extensive, the theories are starting to be applied to other cultures, adding validity to the theory in that it is not only true for Americans and Europeans.[30]

Related concepts[edit]

Social loafing is the tendency of individuals to slack in a group when work is pooled and individual performance is not being evaluated. A good example of social facilitation is a foot race (where the individual runs faster when there are other runners) as opposed to a group tug-of-war (where the work is pooled, and an individual's lack of performance is hard to notice).

See also[edit]


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