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Social facilitation is the tendency for people to be aroused into better performance on simple tasks (or tasks at which they are expert or that have become autonomous) when under the eye of others, rather than while they are alone (audience effect), or when competing against another (coactor effect). Complex tasks (or tasks at which people are not skilled), however, are often performed in an inferior manner in such situations. This effect has been demonstrated in a variety of species. In humans, it is strongest among those who are most concerned about the opinions of others, and when the individual is being watched by someone he or she does not know, or cannot see well.
The earliest published research on social facilitation was conducted by Norman Triplett in 1898. Triplett observed that among bicycle racers, the presence of other cyclists tended to increase performance, leading to faster race times. Research on social facilitation progressed slowly over the next few decades as the presence of others seemed to increase performance in some situations, and decrease it in other situations.
Origins of the theory
Triplett's early experiments (1898)  mark the beginning of an enquiry on the complex mechanism governing what would later be called the Social Facilitation-Inhibition (SFI) theory: the effect the presence of others has on people's behaviour. Recording the speed of professional cyclists in three conditions: alone un-paced against time, alone paced against time and in a competition set-up with a pacemaker, Triplett found the best performances in the last condition (a gain of up to 25% over the un-paced scores), followed by the performances in the second condition.
He then conducted an experiment involving children and a reeling apparatus. This time, results were more ambiguous. While most children managed to reel faster in the presence of an audience, some seemed unaffected by that presence and some reeled slower, which led Triplett to speculate that the latter group's impaired performance may have been caused by over-stimulation.
Triplett's research focussed on competition, but later experiments expanded the field of enquiry. However, the data collected revealed inconsistencies. Aiello & Douthitt (2001) report Allport's (1920) conflicting results in a two-tasks study: word associatins and generation of arguments relating to classic literature. In both tasks, the quantitative output was higher in the group condition, but the quality of the arguments was considered higher in the alone condition.
The type of tasks has an influence on social facilitation, for example mental versus motor, but so has the type of presence. As reported by Aiello & Douthitt (2001), Dashiell (1930), found and studied four types of audience: the mere presence, the later-called evaluative audience, non-competing coactors and competing coactors. His instructions to his participants not to compete were a valiant, but as in today's research, perhaps only partly successful attempt to eliminate the competitive element from the equation. To make matters worse, Guerin (1993) highlights the fact that in many early studies, the alone condition sometimes meant the researcher in the room (Aiello & Douthitt, 2001).
More recently, Baron (1986) proposed an alternative view of social facilitation, one that is based on attention and distraction. He suggested that task performance is dependent upon the number of cues or distractions present in the situation. Today, most social psychologists believe that social facilitation in humans is influenced by both arousal (as in Zajonc's theory) and cognitive processes (such as distraction, and also evaluation apprehension).
Zajonc's Social Facilitation article helped clarify the issue. First, he made clear the distinction between a passive audience and one involved in the same task (co-action effects). However, he insisted that the mere presence was enough to cause arousal. In support of that idea, social facilitation effects were found in an experiment where participants were prevented to "attend directly" to the audience (Platania & Moran, 2001). Zajonc then formulated a theory explaining the opposite effects an audience has on performance:
- facilitating when the task is already mastered,
- inhibiting if still at the learning stage.
The mechanism underlying the process, later called the Arousal or Drive Theory, is thus: the presence of others creates a state of arousal, which in turn causes the activation of dominant responses. In the case of the mastered task, this means an improved performance, but if the task is new, or difficult, dominant responses will mostly be erroneous resulting in a poor performance.
Multiple factors may affect performance, depending on the individual's perception of the audience.
- Decreased levels of arousal can occur because the presence is felt to be reassuring, or when it is imitated (Zajonc, 1965).
- Presence may be distracting, which, according to Meumann, would cause enhanced performance as compensation, or impaired performance according to Allport (Aiello & Douthitt, 2001).
- It may be seen as evaluative, or even threatening. It has been suggested that the very fact of being presented with a task automatically creates the feeling of being evaluated, even in the alone condition (Griffin, 2001). However, the presence, if social cues are given (postive or negative experimenter), moderates that effect (Thomas, Skitka, Christen & Jurgena, 2002). Guerin (1986) suggests this happens "when there is uncertainty in the behavior of the person present". To partially address this issue, Schmitt, Gilovich, Goore & Joseph (1986) chose to have the audience wear a blindfold and earphones. Additionally, the participants performed a simple and a difficult task witout being aware the experiment had started.
Blue Yellow Red
- It may nurture negative feelings of inadequacy or positively encourage competition, as in the novice/expert dyad. Huguet, Galvaing, Monteil & Dumas (1999) report that an unpredictable audience and a slightly superior co-actor had a facilitating effect in the Stroop task, thus disproving Zajonc's view in favour of an attentional view of SFI effects. They suggested the importance of the situation in which the testing takes place.
- Sexual attraction, feelings of love, boredom, contempt, curiosity all influence arousal activation.
Factors mediating SFI effects are almost endless, and notoriously difficult to control. However, Zajonc states that mere presence is "not only necessary but sufficient for social facilitation" (Aiello & Douthitt, 2001).
The social facilitation process consists of complex interactions between "types of task, types of audience, types of actor" (Grant & Dajee, 2003). Many questions remain unanswered:
- Are both genders equally affected by the presence of another?
- Do social inhibition effects diminish as people get older?
- Do they increase when participant and audience are of mixed gender? For instance, stereotype threat affected females' performance in a math task, unless directed to misinterpret the treat (Ben-Zeev, Fein & Inzlicht, 2005).
- Individual differences may also play a part. Terry & Kearnes (1993) compared scores between participants with low and high self-esteem. The results partly confirmed their hypothesis that an audience would only affect the participants with low self-esteem.
- Grant & Dajess (2003) proposed that extraversion scores indicate variation in performance. Their approach, linking Zajonc's with Eysenk 1967's Personality theory called for future research to construct performance curves for ntroverts and extraverts performing under various condition in a variety of tasks.
Arousal, and its debilitating effect on unpractised performance, can be demonstrated in the most basic audience condition. Ongoing psychological research demonstrates that the presence can even be virtual, as in online encounters, virtual teams or computer monitoring in the workplace (Aiello, 1999) . Although a hundred years old, Social facilitation theory is a dynamic, complex and vital field of research within Social Psychology.
Key texts - papers
- Triplett, N. (1898). The Dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. American Journal of Psychology, 9, 507-533. Fulltext
- Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149, 269-274.
- Aiello, J. (1999) Professional Profile. Fulltext
- Aiello, J. R. & Douthitt, E. A. (2001). Social facilitation from Triplett to electronic performance monitoring. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 5(3), 163-180.
- Baron, R. A. (1986). Distraction-conflict theory: Progress and problems. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 19). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
- Ben-Zeev, T., Fein, S. & Inzlicht, M. (2005). Arousal and stereotyping threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 174-181.
- Bond, Charles F., Titus, L. J. (1983). Social facilitation: a meta-analysis of 241 studies. Psychological Bulletin. 94(2), Sep 1983, 265-292.
- Grant, T. & Dajee, K. (2003). Types of task, types of audience, types of actor: Interactions between mere presence and personality type in a simple mathematical task. Personality and Individual Differences, 35(3), 633-639.
- Griffin, M. (2001). The Phenomenology of the alone condition: More evidence for the role of aloneness in social facilitation, The Journal of Psychology, 135(1), 125-127.
- Guerin, B. (1986). Mere presence effects in humans: A review. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 22(1), 38-77.
- Hertel, G. (2000). Editorial: Motivation gains in groups: A brief review of the state of the art. Zeitschrift für Sozialpsychologie, 4, 169-175. Fulltext
- Heyes, C.M., Ray, E.D., Mitchell, C.J., & Nokes, T. (2000). Stimulus Enhancement: Controls for Social Facilitation and Local Enhancement. Learning and Motivation, Vol. 31, 83-98. Full text
- Huguet, P., Galvaing, M. P., Monteil, J. M. & Dumas, F. (1999). Social presence effects in the Stroop task: Further evidence for an attentional view of social facilitation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(5), 1011-1025.
- Platania, J. & Moran, G. P. (2001). Social facilitation as a fuction of the mere presence of others. The Journal of Social Psychology, 141(2), 190-197.
- Terry, D. J. & Kearnes, M. (1993). Effects of an audience on the task performance of subjects with high and low self-esteem. Personality and Individual Differences, 15(2), 137-145.
- Thomas, D. L., Skitka, L. J., Christen, S. & Jurgena, M. (2002). Social facilitation and impression formation. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 24(1), 67-70.