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Social Facilitation is the phenomenon where performance is altered due to the presence of another person or other people (Rosenbloom, Shahar, Perlman, Estreich, & Kirzner, 2007). This can either a positive or negative effect on performance and can be seen in many situations, such as when one is nervous in front of a crowd and performs worse than usual, or when one runs faster when racing others as opposed to when running alone.
The Beginnings of Social Facilitation
Often in competitive situations, performance is enhanced. This was first shown by Norman Triplett (1898), in his study of cyclists. He observed that cyclists performed better when they were racing against others cyclists than when racing only against the clock (Triplett, 1898). In this study, Triplett attributed this performance increase to the effect of the presence of others. He claimed that the presence of other people competing in the same activity led to enhanced performance (Triplett 1898). In a further study by Cottrell (1968), it was shown that some individuals performed tasks better even with the presence of only observers, and therefore no effect of competition was needed. In addition, it was found that performance was increased only when participants thought the observers were evaluating them (Cottrell, Sekerak, Wack, & Rittle, 1968). This finding led researchers to believe that evaluation apprehension, or concern about how others are evaluating you, was the driving force behind social facilitation (Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, & Salomon, 1999).
On the other hand, however, sometimes people do worse on tasks when there are other people watching. In another study by Triplett, children were given a task to operate a small piece of machinery, either in the presence of others or alone. Some children performed better alone, while others performed better with people watching (Triplett, 1898). This showed that while some individuals were positively affected by the presence of others, some individuals were also negatively affected, yielding a decrease in performance (Blascovich et al., 1999). This negative effect on performance seemed to be in direct opposition to the other findings of Triplett and Cottrell, until social psychologist Robert Zajonc made the connection between them.
Social Facilitation Theory
Zajonc (1965) proposed that being in the presence of others causes arousal, leading to an increase in the dominant response, which is defined as the most common response in a given situation (Rosenbloom et al., 2007; Zajonc & Sales, 1965). This idea is known as the Social Facilitation Theory. Zajonc states that given a task with other people present, either observers or cofactors, the dominant response will be enhanced and the subordinate response, or less common response, will be inhibited. In a situation where the dominant response is mostly correct, such as if the task uses previously acquired skills, the subject will exhibit better performance. If the dominant response is mostly incorrect, such as learning a new task, then the subject will demonstrate poorer performance (Zajonc et al., 1965). Therefore, “performance is improved with simple or familiar tasks, and deteriorates with complex or new tasks” (Rosenbloom et al., 2007, p. 2). This theory of dominant response explains both the positive and negative effects of the presence of other people.
In addition to these findings, Zajonc created another study to test his theory, using cockroaches (Zajonc, Heingartner, and Herman 1969). Cockroaches have a natural tendency to run from the light to darker areas. In this experiment, Zajonc set up two mazes, one simple and one complex. In both mazes, a light was shown on the cockroach at one end of the maze, which had to get to the darkened box at the end of the maze. The two mazes were both tested with two different conditions. In one condition, the roach was in the maze alone with no observers. In the other condition, there were other roaches observing from audience boxes along the maze. In the simple maze condition, cockroaches found the darkened box faster when there were other roaches observing. In the complex maze condition, however, the cockroaches completed the task slower when other roaches were observing (Zajonc et al., 1969). These findings supported his social facilitation theory based on dominant responses.
Through all of these studies and others, social facilitation has been found to be a significant effect of observers on an individual’s performance, by increasing performance on simple, well-learned tasks and decreasing performance of novel, difficult tasks. Many other researchers have also studied and supported the theory of social facilitation. While some differ on the precise mechanism of the effect of observers, it is agreed that social facilitation plays an important role in performance (Bond & Titus, 1983).
Example / Application
Example: Dirty Dancing
Application: Since Social Facilitation is the phenomenon where performance is altered due to the presence of another person or other people, notice how Baby dances well in practice when there are no other people, but when she is placed in front of the crowd she does poorly. Since its a complex task for her, she does poorly, whereas its a simple task for Johnny so he does well.
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2. Blascovich, J., Mendes, W., Hunter, S., & Salomon, K. (1999, July). Social "facilitation" as challenge and threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(1), 68-77.
3. Bond, C. F. & Titus, L. J. (1983). Social Facilitation: A Meta-Analysis of 241 Studies. Psychological Bulletin, 94(2), 265-292.
4. Cottrell, N.B., Sekerak, G. J, Wack, D.L., & 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), 245-250.
5. Rosenbloom, T., Shahar, A., Perlman, A., Estreich, D., & Kirzner, E. (2007, November). Success on a practical driver's license test with and without the presence of another testee. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 39(6), 1296-1301.
6. Triplett, N. (1898). The Dynamogenic Factors in Pacemaking and Competittion. American Journal of Psychology, 9, 507-533.
7. 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
8. Zajonc, R. B. & Sales, S. M. (1966, April). Social facilitation of dominant and subordinate responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2(2), 160-168.