The Basic Idea
Think back to a time you were trying to get some work done at home, but could not concentrate on the task at hand. Maybe you sat there for hours . . . and only got 30 minutes of work done. Or maybe you just HAD to take another snack break, check on your dog, and double-check the mailbox – and suddenly it was the end of the day.
Maybe you decided “enough is enough,” and walked yourself and your trusty, patient laptop to the closest Starbucks. When you sat down with your drink and started working again, you ended up getting your work done at lightning speed.
Was it the coffee? Perhaps. However, psychology would say that social facilitation explains your increase in productivity. Social facilitation is when people’s productivity increases as a result of the real or perceived perception of others. At home, you knew you were alone, so it was hard to motivate yourself to get things done. At Starbucks, though, you knew other people were around, so you felt compelled to be more productive.
Theory, meet practice
TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.
Social facilitation: a phenomenon where people show increased levels of effort and performance when in the presence of others—whether it be real, imagined, implied or virtual—compared to their effort and performance levels when they are alone. There are two types of social facilitation: co-action effects and audience effects.1
Co-action effects: When the presence of others doing the same task causes an increase in one’s performance.1
Audience effects: When the mere presence of others as an audience causes an increase in one’s performance.1
Social Inhibition: Refers to the tendency for one’s performance to decrease or worsen in the presence of others.2
The concept of social facilitation was first proposed by American Psychologist Norman Triplett in 1898. He was studying the performance of bike racers and noticed that cyclists who trained alongside other cyclists performed better than when they simply tried to beat their personal best time.3
In 1924, Psychologist Floyd H. Allport was the first to formally use the term “Social Facilitation,” which he defined to be “an increase in response merely from the sight or sound of others making the same movement.”4 Today, the definition includes an increase in response from others who may not be performing the same task, alongside Allport’s original definition.
Triplett’s work inspired many others to study social facilitation. A 1937 study on ants revealed that worker ants will dig three times more sand for every additional ant that is present and also digging sand.5 A study done in 1967 found that armadillos tend to eat significantly more food when there are other armadillos present.6
The studies mentioned above are all examples of co-action effects. American Psychologist John Dashiell is generally attributed with discovering the type of social facilitation called “audience effects,” since a study of his from 1935 revealed that the presence of an audience increased the performance of multiplication in adult participants, measured by the number of multiplications completed. However many more studies surrounding audience effects exist today.7
Norman Triplett was an American psychologist who worked at Indiana University, most widely recognized for this work on social facilitation. His work with cyclists in 1898, is recognized today as the first published study in social psychology, which is the branch of psychology that deals with the social interactions among people. Aside from his work in social psychology, Triplett was also interested in the psychology of magic. He studied many different conjuring techniques and described some of the principles involved in these techniques, such as optical illusions and mathematical calculations.8
Floyd H. Allport
An American psychologist, Floyd H. Allport is generally acknowledged as one of the founders of the scientific discipline of social psychology. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1919 and remained as a lecturer there until 1922. One of his most notable achievements is his book titled Social Psychology, in which he integrated psychological knowledge into fields such as child development. The book also included Allport’s own research on group influence, as well as a useful collection of concepts for research — e.g., social facilitation, social increment/decrement, afferent/efferent conditioning, etc.9
John Frederick Dashiell was an American psychologist and a former president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Upon finishing two bachelor’s degrees, he was accepted to Columbia University to complete his graduate studies in psychology. Dashiell later moved around quite a bit, teaching at different institutions until he settled upon the University of North Carolina, Chapel-Hill, where he became a department head. In 1938, during his term as president of the APA, he advocated for the reintegration of philosophy into the field of psychology, for its methodology and logic.10, 11
Triplett’s cycling study is widely attributed as being the first social psychology laboratory experiment.1 Afterwards, during the 1930s, many psychologists fled to the United States from Nazi Germany and played a big role in the early development of social psychology. They primarily studied persuasion and propaganda, to help the US military, but later moved on to a wider variety of social issues, including racial prejudice.12 In other words, Triplett’s research on the concept of social facilitation marked the beginning of the entire social psychology field which sees many relevant applications to our everyday lives.
From both Allport’s work in 1924 and Dashiell’s in 1935, the factors which affect performance in the presence of others were condensed into the following list by American Social Psychologist Bernard Guerin in 1993: competition (rivalry), modeling, encouragement or social reinforcement, arousal, monitorability, imitation, group membership, distraction, and evaluation. All of these factors affect our day-to-day lives, and understanding them can help us use them to reach our goals, optimally motivate ourselves, and much more.
Take, for example, audiences at a sports game. This is a prime example of social facilitation at work in the real world. According to Polish-American Psychologist Robert B. Zajonc and American Psychologist Stephen M. Sales, an audience induces arousal in the athletes, causing them to perform their dominant (i.e., most natural) response. Simple, well-practiced actions will see an increase in performance; complex, unfamiliar actions will be impaired.13 Thus, athletes that practice a lot and become familiar with different plays and skills will see an improvement in front of an audience.
Athletes are not alone in this, though. Social facilitation can be further translated into the performances by musicians, comedians, and even our own tasks can also improve in front of an audience when well-versed in our actions.
Captivated by his findings in the cyclist study mentioned above, Triplett attempted to duplicate this phenomenon by observing the behavior of children doing a fishing reel task. He found that when competing with other children, half of the participants would work more quickly, one quarter worked slower, and the remaining quarter worked at the same pace as compared to performing the same task alone. In other words, 50% of children saw an increase in performance. 50% did not.
This is not the only experiment that seemed to contradict Triplett’s initial proposal. In 1933, a study published by the American Journal of Psychology found that when participants were asked to memorize a list of nonsense syllables, their performance (measured by the number of repetitions it took to fully memorize the list) was better when they were alone, rather than in the presence of someone else.14
Zanjoc and Sales propose a way to make sense of these seemingly contradictory results. They suggested that the presence of spectators enhances an individual’s dominant response. But for the majority of participants in the 1933 study, memorizing lists of nonsense syllables was not a well-practiced behavior. So, their performance would be inhibited — not aided — by the presence of spectators. Had the task felt familiar to the participants, their performance would have improved.
From this finding, the term “social inhibition” was coined. It refers to the phenomenon that occurs when one’s performance in an unfamiliar activity decreases in the presence of others watching and is generally used in contrast with social facilitation.
Alongside Zajonc and Sales’ proposal, though, there are two other proposed explanations for the inconsistencies we see between social facilitation experiments. The first was proposed by researcher Robert S. Baron in 1986, which he called the Distraction-Conflict Theory. According to Baran, the conflict between giving attention to the person present, versus focusing on the task at hand, explains the inconsistent findings.15
The second proposed explanation comes from researcher Nickolas B. Cottrell and colleagues. They proposed that instead of the mere presence of others enhancing the dominant response, a spectating audience is necessary. That is to say, it is the feeling of being evaluated—rather than being watched—that affects one’s performance. The anxiety from knowing whether those watching us are evaluating our performance is what triggers the dominant response during the performance of a task.16
Social Facilitation in NBA teams
An analysis of 8950 National Basketball Association (NBA) games was conducted to assess how audience size could affect a team’s skill level and experience to predict performance. The researchers had four hypotheses, but the one most relevant to us was that there would be a positive relationship between attendance and performance for superior (favored to win) teams, and a negative relationship for underdog (not favored to win) teams.
As predicted, they found that the favored team in each game would see an increase in performance. Interestingly, though, they found that underdog teams performed significantly better, not worse, under conditions with larger audiences, contrary to their initial hypothesis. They also found that only the underdog teams showed a positive correlation between performance and size of the audience for home games. This seemed to contradict Zajonc and Sales’ social facilitation theory. Instead, the researchers argued that, rather than being intimidated by opponents’ crowd, (as predicted by Zajonc and Sales’ theory), underdog teams used the additional pressure as motivation to rise to the challenge.17
Related TDL Content
Although we tend to contrast social facilitation and social inhibition, our behavior changes in other ways when we go from being alone to being around others. In this piece, we take a look at social loafing: the phenomenon wherein individuals exert less effort when they are working on a collective goal. Take a deeper look to understand its relevance to society shed some light on the different things that can affect your performance.
Want to learn how to motivate yourself without solely relying on the presence of others? This short read will help you understand how to apply behavioral insights to break bad habits and form new ones using motivation, facilitation, and reinforcement strategies.
Have you ever noticed that you act differently when you’re alone versus when you’re in public? This piece spotlights the observer expectancy effect, which refers to how the perceived expectations of an observer can influence the people being observed. Give this piece a quick read to learn about why the observer expectancy bias is important, and how to avoid it.
- Mcleod, S. (2020, June 24). Social facilitation. Social Facilitation | Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Social-Facilitation.html.
- McCarty, M., & Karau, S. (2016). Social inhibition. Oxford Handbooks Online. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199859870.013.9
- Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. The American journal of psychology, 9(4), 507-533.
- Guerin, B., & Innes, J. (2009). Social facilitation. Cambridge University Press
- Chen, S. C. (1937). The leaders and followers among the ants in nest-building. Physiological Zoology, 10(4), 437-455.
- Platt, J. J., Yaksh, T., & Darby, C. L. (1967). Social facilitation of eating behavior in armadillos. Psychological Reports, 20(3_suppl), 1136-1136.
- Dashiell, J. F. (1935). Experimental studies of the influence of social situations on the behavior of individual human adults.
- Norman Triplett. Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias. (n.d.). https://en-academic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/1498490.
- Allport, Floyd H. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. (n.d.). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/allport-floyd-h
- Smith, L. (1986). Behaviorism and logical positivism: A reassessment of the alliance. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 7(4).
- Wozniak, R. H. (1997). John Frederick Dashiell and the Fundamentals of Objective Psychology. http://bascom.brynmawr.edu/psychology/rwozniak/dashiell.html.
- Social psychology: Definition, history, methods, applications – iresearchnet. Psychology. (n.d.). http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/.
- Zajonc, R. B., & Sales, S. M. (1966). Social facilitation of dominant and subordinate responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2(2), 160-168.
- Pessin, J. (1933). The comparative effects of social and mechanical stimulation on memorizing. The American Journal of Psychology, 45(2), 263-270.
- Baron, R. S. (1986). Distraction-conflict theory: Progress and problems. Advances in experimental social psychology, 19, 1-40.
- Cottrell, N. B., Wack, D. L., Sekerak, G. J., & Rittle, R. H. (1968). Social facilitation of dominant responses by the presence of an audience and the mere presence of others. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(3), 245.
- Kay, E. M. (2015). Social Facilitation in National Basketball Association Teams.