Stage Fright

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Stage Fright

Stage fright is a term describing an at times debilitating, anxiety-rousing emotion on account of an uncomfortable social situation (Hendrikson, 1948). It is typically short-term in occurrence, usually when public speaking, performing, or placed in a situation involving self-presentation to an audience. Research suggests that certain factors such as shyness, audience, task performance, and perceptions of anxiety influence one’s susceptibility to the symptoms of stage fright (Buss & Briggs, 1984; Yondem, 2007).

Shyness vs. Stage Fright

The notion of stage fright tends to have a more situational and short-term characteristic than shyness, which is a feeling of fear of embarrassment and predominant considered a dispositional trait (Buss & Briggs, 1984). However, both have many similar characteristics, such as anxiety or embarrassment, a feeling of awkwardness, a tendency to say nothing, and an intense desire to escape (Buss & Briggs, 1984). Using the self-presentation model and a complementary individualistic model that places a greater emphasis on individual behavior, as opposed to one’s public behavior, they were able to examine the distinction between shyness and stage fright (Buss & Briggs, 1984). Due to characteristics regarding high self-awareness, poor social skills, and little social motivation, stage fright, in many cases, can be the result of shyness (Buss & Briggs, 1984). Shyness is more of a personality trait, similar to the acute public self-awareness of actors in front of an audience; however, people with some degree of shyness are constantly preoccupied by this sense of public self-awareness, thus creating a more constant interference with daily functioning (Buss & Brigg, 1984).


Latané and Harkins (1976) found that audience size plays a vital role in the intensity of stage fright, performance apprehension, or embarrassment. They found that increased audience size produces increased estimates of nervousness and tension (Latané & Harkins, 1976). Furthermore, the results of their study show that not only audience size has a greater effect on nervousness; but when paired with a strength variable, in this case high status of members within the audience, the intensity of the stage fright peaks (Latané & Harkins, 1976). Jackson and Latané (1981) developed a similar study; however, this time they studied the implications of social facilitation and affiliation theories on stage fright. Zajonc’s (1965) theory of social facilitation claims that the effects of performing in front of other people can be explained as resulting from increased arousal. In Study 1, a laboratory experiment, performance apprehension increased as a function of audience size and status, but decreased as a function of number of performers (Jackson & Latané, 1981). In Study 2, a correlational field study, performers in a university Greek Week talent show who appeared as members of large acts reported less nervousness and tension than performers who appeared in small acts (Jackson & Latané, 1981). Their findings strongly suggest that self-reports of nervousness and tension can be taken as measures of arousal, therefore the number and status of people in the audience is a predictor of stage fright, as well as a predictor of one’s level of performance (Jackson & Latané, 1981).

Task Performance & Perceptions of Anxiety

Stage fright has been found to be a result of individuals’ tendencies to average or summate impact of the audience members (Seta, Crisson, Seta, & Wang, 1989). They set up their experiment by exposing all subjects (98 female students) to different audience sizes and different audience compositions, all either relatively high or low in homogeneity (Seta, Crisson, Seta, & Wang, 1989). One half of all subjects were exposed to audiences in which the members were undergraduates, while the other group was exposed to audience members of higher status (Seta, Crisson, Seta, & Wang, 1989). They found that under evaluative settings, an individuals’ level of performance anxiety has a tendency to fluctuate depending on the individual’s perception of the audience (Seta, Crisson, Seta, & Wang). If the audience is homogeneous, then the key concern is status. If the audience is mixed, then the key concern pertains to what the status of the dominant group is (Seta, Crisson, Seta, & Wang, 1989). These averaging and summative tendencies are said to function from individuals’ perceptions of anxiety and their levels of performance in front of audiences (Seta, Crisson, Seta, & Wang, 1989).

Stage Fright & Other Variables

Yondem (2007) studied the relationships between anxiety and general dysfunctional attitudes, perfectionism, and the need for approval in the solo performance; he then examined the effects of perfectionism, need for approval, and gender on anxiety. His sample was composed of fifty-four Turkish instrumental music students (Yondem, 2007). Using the Beck Anxiety Inventory ( (Beck, Epstein, Brown, & Steer, 1988) and the Dysfunctional Attitudes Scale (Weissman & Beck, 1978), the results revealed that there are significant positive correlations between anxiety and total score of dysfunctional attitudes, and the need for approval (Yondem, 2007). His research helps to bring a better understanding to what variables contribute to the phenomenon called stage fright, further allowing more opportunities for future research in the epidemiology and diagnosis of performance anxiety.

Alternative Explanations

There are many alternative explanations and critiques about the origins and characteristics of stage fright. Hendrikson (1948) found that there is no significant tendency for the intensity of stage fright to correlate with one’s rate of speech when placed in a situation that might warrant performance anxiety. He contrastingly found that speaking time decreased when one felt the symptoms of stage fright (Hendrikson, 1948). Ullman (1940) suggested that stage fright was a learned emotional response that could be unlearned. She used methods from behavioral therapy, such as systematic desensitization, to recondition the fear caused by audiences (Ullman, 1940). The results were promising and proved to be a definite remedy to the anxiety caused by stage fright (Ullman, 1940).

Works Cited

Beck, A., Epstein, N., Brown, G., & Steer, R. (1988). An inventory for measuring clinical anxiety: psychometric properties. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56 , 893-897.

Buss, A., & Briggs, S. (1984). Drama and the self in social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(6) , 1310-1324.

Hendrikson, E. (1948). A study of stage fright and the judgment of speaking time. Journal of Applied Psychology, 32(5) , 532-536.

Jackson, J., & Latané, B. (1981). All alone in front of all those people: Stage fright as a function of number and type of co-performers and audience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 40(1) , 73-85.

Latané, B. &. (1976). Cross-modality matches suggest anticipated stage fright as multiplicative function of audience size and status. Perception and Psychophysics, 20 , 482-488.

Seta, J., Crisson, J., Seta, C., & Wang, M. (1989). Task Performance and Perceptions of Anxiety: Averaging and Summation in an Evaluative Setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(3) , 387-396.

Ullman, M. (1940). A note of overcoming stage fright among musicians. Journal of Applied Psychology, 24(1) , 82-84.

Weissman, A., & Beck, A. (1978). Development and validation of the Dysfunctional Attitudes Scale. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association .

Yondem, Z. D. (2007). Performance anxiety, dysfunctional attitudes and gender in university music students. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 35(10) , 1415-1426.

Zajonc, R. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149 , 269-274.

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