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