Psychology Of Social Facilitation Research Paper

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Social facilitation refers to the effect of the presence of others on the individual. This phenomenon is of psychological interest to scholars who regard the presence of others as a minimal condition for social influence.



1. History Of The Term

The term social facilitation was coined by the American Floyd Allport in an early textbook of social psychology (Allport 1924). Allport’s was a behavioral treatment of the field. As part of his Social Psychology, Allport maintained that a response called forth by a nonsocial stimulus could be augmented by an incidental social stimulus. He termed this contributory influence social facilitation. Allport reported demonstrations of the social facilitation of students’ task performance from the sight and sound of other students performing the same task. Allport’s research participants cancelled vowels more quickly, multiplied numbers more quickly, and generated word associations more quickly when they were working alongside peers than when they were not.

When an individual is in the presence of others, the others will invariably assume some role. Sometimes they are watching the individual, as members of an audience. Sometimes they occupy the same role as the individual, and all are engaged in the same behavior. In this latter case, the others are said to be co-actors. Audience and co-action researchers seek to infer social facilitation from experimental data, by comparing individuals who are in the presence of others with individuals who are alone. However, it is difficult to collect valid evidence of social facilitation, because the monitoring that the experiments require may compromise research participants’ sense of solitude. In such cases, no one is truly ‘alone,’ and the impact of others’ presence is difficult to isolate.

Social facilitation was first reported in an 1898 journal article by Norman Triplett. Studying records of bicycle races, the sports psychologist noted a tendency for cyclists to race more quickly when riding alongside competitors than when riding alone against the clock. Triplett developed a laboratory-based analogue of this social phenomenon, when he had school children turn a fishing reel alone and in the presence of coacting classmates. The presence of these young coactors produced faster reel-turning, an effect that Triplett attributed to a ‘dynamogenic’ increase in motivation. Years later, Triplett’s 1898 study of others’ presence was dubbed the first experiment in social psychology, although its claim to this title has been disputed.

2. Effects Of The Presence Of Others

Social facilitations have been observed in a number of species. Chickens peck at food more quickly when other chickens are pecking; rats press a bar faster in the presence of other rats; cockroaches run with greater speed when running alongside other cockroaches. To the biologically oriented psychologist (e.g., Clayton 1978), these demonstrations of animal social facilitation hold profound interest.

People can be affected in many ways by the presence of others. Physiologically inclined researchers report social facilitations of human heart rate, blood pressure, and electrodermal activity. If often the presence of others increases an individual’s physiological arousal, sometimes affiliation with others can reduce high levels of arousal (Mullen et al. 1997). Psychological investigators have documented social facilitations of various behaviors (Kent 1994). In the presence of others, people eat large meals, express conventional judgments, and show a tendency to smile. Gender and cultural differences in social facilitation are sometimes observed. In the presence of others, males (but not females) display a heightened tolerance for pain. In the presence of others, Japanese (but not American) students conceal facial signs of distress.

Since Triplett’s pioneering investigation, psychologists have reported hundreds of experiments on the social facilitation of human task performance. The evidence that they have amassed indicates that the term social facilitation may be a misnomer. If sometimes the presence of others facilitates a person’s task performance, often it has the opposite effect. In the presence of others, people have trouble unscrambling anagrams; in the presence of others, people lack motor coordination; in the presence of others, people do poorly on memory tasks.

When is a person’s task performance facilitated by the presence of others, and when it is impaired? Psychologists had been pondering this question for decades before they found a convincing answer. In 1965, social psychologist Robert Zajonc published an article in the prestigious journal Science. There, Zajonc contended that the impact of the presence of others on task performance depends on the complexity of the performer’s task. The presence of others serves to facilitate the performance of simple tasks and to impair the performance of complex tasks, Zajonc claimed. Subsequent evidence verifies that the impact of the presence of others does, indeed, depend on task complexity. At the same time, it indicates that social impairments of complex performance are stronger than social facilitations of simple performance. People perform simple tasks more quickly in the presence of others. However, there is little evidence that others’ presence has any effect on simple performance quality, a quantitative review of 241 ‘social facilitation’ studies concluded (Bond and Titus 1983).

3. Explanations Of Social Facilitation

Psychologists have attempted to explain social effects on task performance. In his 1965 article, Robert Zajonc proposed the most influential explanation. According to Zajonc, the presence of others increases an individual’s level of generalized drive. Generalized drive, learning psychologists Clark Hull and Kurt Spence hypothesized, functions to energize an individual’s dominant response tendency toward any stimulus compound. Generalized drive enhances this dominant response tendency, to the exclusion of any weaker tendencies. According to Zajonc’s drive theory of social facilitation, the impact of the presence of others on the performance of a task should hinge on the performer’s dominant response tendency when attempting the task. On simple tasks, where the dominant tendency is toward a correct response, the presence of others should facilitate performance. On complex tasks, where the dominant tendency is to make a mistake, the presence of others should enhance this error, thereby impairing performance.

Zajonc’s theory intensified interest in the study of social facilitation. Many experiments were designed to test this drive theory of social facilitation, and the theory was often corroborated. When the presence of others caused errors in athletic performance, undermined spatial maze learning, and enhanced response tendencies that had been trained to dominance in the laboratory, researchers claimed evidence for the operation of a socially induced drive. The presence of others was shown to have different effects on task performance at different stages in the learning of the task—retarding individuals’ acquisition of novel skills, then facilitating execution of those same skills once performance reached a plateau. Over training, drive theorists reason, correct response tendencies come to dominate over errors; thus dominantresponse enhancements can explain these opposing effects.

Although for a time theorists agreed that the presence of others functioned as a source of generalized drive, there were debates about the origin of the drive. Zajonc attributed drive to the unpredictability of species mates, and an individual’s need, in the presence of others, to be alert to the unexpected. Other social psychologists (notably Nickolas Cottrell) believed that drive reflected a learned tendency to associate the presence of others with positive and negative outcomes. Only when others were in a position to confer such outcomes would they have any effects on the individual, Cottrell implied.

Positive and negative outcomes are often associated with the presence of others, all psychologists agreed. Many wondered, however, whether the mere presence of others would be sufficient to influence the individual, independent of any associative processes. In search of effects of the mere presence of others, experimenters conducted some colorful studies. They fed rats in the presence of anaesthetized rats; confronted chickens with a dead companion; and had undergraduates trace spatial mazes in front of blindfolded mannequins. When results indicated that individuals can be affected by others who are merely present, many psychologists acted as though Cottrell’s analysis of social facilitation could be discarded. More recently, the theoretical significance of mere presence effects has been revisited. Robert vs. Baron argues that if an individual learns to associate positive and negative outcomes with the presence of others, then others who are merely present should become a conditioned stimulus for those outcomes. From Baron’s perspective, mere presence effects are simply conditioned responses, and have no bearing on the origin of any socially induced drive. No doubt, there will be continuing discussion about the theoretical significance of the effects of the mere presence of others. In the meantime, it is apparent that others’ mere presence can have some effects.

As drive theorists engaged in intramural disputes, alternative theories of the effects of the presence of others were being developed (Geen 1989). A self-presentational analysis attributed the social facilitation of task performance to the performer’s regulation of a public image, and the social impairment of performance to embarrassment from a loss of public esteem. Theoretically, performers lose esteem when they must attempt complex tasks in public. Complex tasks, theorists note, are ones on which the individual makes many mistakes. Self-awareness theories held that the presence of others prompts individuals to compare their task performance to a performance standard. These self-evaluations may inspire performance facilitation or occasion a withdrawal from the task, depending on the outcome of the comparison. Cybernetic models of the self-comparison process were constructed. Performers must divide their attention between a task and any others who are present, an influential distraction-conflict theory emphasized. This theory made the novel prediction that social distractions would facililtate simple task performance, and inspired evidence of an audience-induced attentional overload (Baron 1986). The inability to visually monitor others’ reactions arouses uncertainty, and this is the key to understanding mere presence effects, writes the Australian psychologist Bernard Guerin (1993).

4. Related Phenomena

Alongside social facilitation from the presence of others are broader facets of the psychology of public performance. Performances, for example, take place in front of audiences of greater or lesser size. Mathematical equations have been developed to relate the number of people in the audience to the audience’s impact on the performer. Data have been fit to the proposed equations, and reveal a negatively accelerating impact, as an audience grows in size. An audience may be supportive of the performer, or it may be hostile. Traditionally it was assumed that audience support would benefit the performer, and create a home-field advantage in sports. However, audience support may intensify pressure and make the performer choke, some paradoxical data suggest. Performers may bring positive expectations or negative expectations to a task. The presence of others benefits performers who expect to succeed, and impedes performers who expect to fail, the self-efficacy theorist Lawrence Sanna writes. The presence of co-actors may obscure the individual’s contributions to a group effort and provide an incentive to loaf, a related research tradition emphasizes. Psychologists continue to pursue these and other possibilities as part of their century-long study of social facilitation.


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  2. Baron R S 1986 Distraction-conflict theory: progress and problems. In: Berkowitz L (ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Academic Press, New York, Vol. 19, pp. 1–40
  3. Bond C F, Titus L J 1983 Social facilitation: a meta-analysis of 241 studies. Psychological Bulletin 94: 265–92
  4. Clayton D A 1978 Socially facilitated behavior. The Quarterly Review of Biology 53: 373–92
  5. Cottrell N B 1972 Social facilitation. In: McClintock C G (ed.) Experimental Social Psychology. Holt, New York, pp. 185–236
  6. Geen R G 1989 Alternative conceptions of social facilitation. In: Paulus P B (ed.) Psychology of Group Influence, 2nd edn. L. Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, pp. 15–51
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  8. Kent M V 1994 The presence of others. In: Hare A P, Blumberg H H, Davies M F, Kent M V (eds.) Small Group Research: A Handbook. Ablex, Norwood, NJ, pp. 81–105
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