There is nothing like the finish line at the end of a marathon, 10-miler, or 5K. You’ve been running for a long time, and you might be sore, but everyone is cheering you on. That extra encouragement gives even the most exhausted runners a boost to run a little faster and complete the race.
Social psychologists back in the 1800s took notice of this phenomenon. Did people actually perform better when they were in front of an audience or with others? Are you likely to shave a few minutes off of your time when you are running with other people? The answers, and the studies that followed, built Social Facilitation Theory, one of the oldest theories in the world of social psychology.
What Is Social Facilitation?
Social facilitation is a phenomenon that suggests that people perform better when they are in the presence of others. Alone, they will not reach the potential that they could reach when being watched or participating with others performing the same task.
Early Social Facilitation Studies
In the 1800s, a social psychologist named Norman Triplett observed that cyclists performed better when they were in a group as opposed to cycling alone. He decided to test out his theory on Social Facilitation in a lab. Experts believe that this could be the first social psychology experiment in the history of the study.
The study asked children to wind up some fishing line. It was a simple task. Some children worked alone while others completed the task in front of another child. Triplett observed that the children who were in the presence of others moved faster.
At the time, Triplett did not label the phenomenon social facilitation. That label came over 30 years later in the 1920s.
As research continued, psychologists discovered that it doesn’t just help someone to perform a task while someone else is doing the same task. Whether they are in the presence of a “co-actor” or an audience, the person is likely to perform better.
Example of Social Facilitation Theory
You have already learned some examples of social facilitation, such as running faster at a crowded marathon than you would if you were running alone. This theory doesn't just apply to athletics. You may give a better theatrical performance when you are moved by the applause of the crowd, or solve a problem faster if you know people are watching you.
Conflicting Social Facilitation Studies
It would be remiss to cite an example from the 1800s and leave things at that. The ways that we conducted experiments two centuries ago are vastly different from the way we conduct experiments now. As psychologists continue to test and retest their theories, they often find conflicting evidence.
This happened in Social Facilitation studies. It took over 40 years for a Social Facilitation study to challenge what we know about the phenomenon.
In 1933, a psychologist named Joseph Pessin gave participants a list of words to memorize. Some completed the task in a group while others completed it alone. If Social Facilitation Theory were to kick in, the people in the group would be able to recite more of the words they had memorized, right?
But that’s not what happened.
The people who performed the task in a group actually did significantly worse than the people who were alone. This study went against the idea of Social Facilitation Theory. What did this mean for the work that Norman Triplett and other psychologists put into this idea?
Activation Theory - Social Facilitation
These two theories were eventually put together by psychologists like James Michaels and Robert Zajonc. These two psychologists worked separately, but together they helped to form Activation Theory within the Social Facilitation phenomenon.
Through their experiments, they found that the difficulty of the task influenced whether or not Social Facilitation took place. If the task was easy or the participants were skilled in the task, they performed better in the presence of others. This phenomenon is still known as Social Facilitation.
On the other hand, if the task was hard or the people were unskilled, they were more likely to perform better when alone. Adding other people to the mix set them up to perform worse. This is now known as Social Inhibition. Both Social Facilitation and Social Inhibition are discussed together under the general umbrella of Social Facilitation Theory.
Other Factors that Influence Performance
Simply the presence of other people may not be enough to help you perform significantly better on a task. Psychologists have other theories about what motivates us, influences us, and helps us perform better.
One idea is that the pressure of performing well for others affects our performance. If you have ever been scared to give a speech in front of an audience, you know this pressure well. For others, this pressure can be a good thing.
The people in the audience may also have an influence on our performance. Statistically, teams win more games when they’re playing at home. One reason they could perform better is because they know and appreciate more of the fans in the stands. Of course, the familiarity of the locker room and being close to family could also help players relax or focus on the game.
Advantages of Social Facilitation
There isn’t one recipe for success, but Social Facilitation Theory helps to point us in the right direction. If you have a goal, experiment with the ways that co-actors or an audience can help you get there. Join a run club. Sign yourself up to perform the guitar at an open mic night. Use an accountability buddy to keep you on track. Bringing other people into your journey could help you perform better and reach your goals sooner.
If you don’t tend to perform well in front of others, it might just mean that you have to practice. You’re not bad at the task. You just need to build up your skills and become more comfortable. Then, you can start to perform in front of others - and perform well.