Social Facilitation & Inhibition

What Is Social Facilitation?

Have you ever noticed that you do things differently when you are being watched? You try a little harder, persevere a little longer, especially if it is something at which you are good. This enhancing effect of an audience is called social facilitation.

Researchers of Social facilitation assert that individuals are more likely to perform simple or well-learned behaviors optimally if they believe that their behavior is being watched (O’Keefe, 2002).

Does an audience make you perform better? Or does it make you “nervous”? The answer seems to depend, at least in part, on how good you are at what you are doing.

The presence of others seems to help when the performer is doing something he or she does well: when the performance is a dominant, well-learned skill, a behavior that is easy or familiar (Zajonc, 1965).

The performance-enhancing effect of an audience on your behavior is known as social facilitation. It is defined as the tendency for the performer to be aroused into a better performance on the simple tasks—or tasks at which he/she is expert—when under the eye of others, rather than when no one is watching.

The complex tasks, or tasks at which a performer is not skilled, however, are often performed in an inferior manner in such situations. This effect is known as a social inhibition.

Important Hint!  
  • Social facilitation is the performance-enhancing effect of others on behavior; generally, simple, well-learned behavior is facilitated by the presence of others.
  • The opposite, social inhibition is the performance-detracting effect of an audience or coactors on behavior; generally, complex, not-well-learned behaviors are inhibited by the presence of others.

The earliest scientific observation of social facilitation recorded was by Triplet in 1897. He observed that bike racers were more likely to cycle faster when this was against another cyclist than against the clock. Triplet's explorations and labeling of the social facilitation phenomenon, gave rise to a theoretical puzzle that attracted the interest of many researchers.

Social facilitation, therefore, refers to the performance impairment and enhancement effects, produced by the presence of others, either as co-actors or, more typically as observers or an audience, and it has long been recognized in both the humans and animals.

In humans, the social facilitation effect, the strengthening of a dominant response due to the presence of other humans, is strongest among those, who are most concerned about the opinions of others on their performance.

So, when others are watching us perform simple tasks, our performance seems to improve. However, if the task is complex or is not well-mastered, the opposite effect can occur: the presence of other people is likely to inhibit the performance.

How can we explain this phenomenon? How does an audience Opens in new window cause us to perform better or worse than we do when no one is watching? Psychologists have several alternative explanations.

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1.     Increased Arousal

The presence of others tends to increase our level of arousal and motivation, possibly because of concerns over being favorably, or being unfavorably evaluated by others.

When a task is simple and well learnt, the increased motivation spurred on by the anticipation of being positively evaluated, seems to work to our benefit.

Under the conditions, social facilitation often occurs. However, when the task is complex or is not well-mastered, the arousal coupled with the apprehension about being negatively evaluated, tends to work against us. Under these conditions, the presence of others can diminish an individual’s performance.

arousal model of social facilitation
Figure I: The Arousal Model of Social Facilitation.
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Robert Zajonc (1965) argued that a performer’s effort always increases in the presence of others due to increased arousal. Increased arousal increases effort; the consequent increased effort improves performance when the behavior is dominant and impairs performance when the behavior is nondominant. If you are good at tennis, then increased arousal and, therefore, increased effort make you play better. If you are not a good tennis player, the increased arousal and increased effort probably will inhibit your performance.

2.     Evaluation Apprehension

An alternative explanation for the effects of an audience on the performance centers not so much on the increased effort that comes from arousal but on judgments we perceive others to be making about our performance. A theater audience, for example, does not simply receive a play passively. Instead, audience members sit in judgment of the actors, even if they are only the armchair critics.

The kind of arousal this situation produces is known as evaluation apprehension. Some social scientists believe that the evaluation apprehension is what causes differences in the performance, when an audience is present (See Figure II).

Important Hint!  

Evaluation apprehension is an explanation for social facilitation suggesting that the presence of others will cause arousal only when they can reward or punish the performer.

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Those who favor the evaluation apprehension as an explanation of the social facilitation and social inhibition, suggest that the presence of others will cause arousal only when they can reward or punish the performer (Green, 1989). The mere presence of others does not seem to be sufficient to account for social facilitation and social inhibition (Cottrell, 1972).

evaluation apprehension model of social facilitation
Figure II: The Evaluation Apprehension Model of Social Facilitation.

In one experiment, when the audience was made up of blindfolded or inattentive persons, social facilitation of performance did not occur. That is, if the audience could not see the performance, or did not care about it, then evaluation apprehension did not occur, nor did social facilitation or social inhibition (Cottrell, Wack, Sekerak, & Rittle, 1968).

Social facilitation effect has been demonstrated in a variety of species. Zajonc, Heingartner, and Herman (1969) tested this phenomenon using cockroaches. They designed a simple maze and a complex maze. They showed a bright light, which cockroaches loathe, at the opening of the maze, and timed how long it would take a cockroach to escape the light and get to the dark-end.

To ensure the presence of the audiences, Zajonc placed additional cockroaches in the transparent plastic ‘spectator boxes.’ They found that in the simple maze, the cockroaches performed better in the presence of the others. In the complex maze, it took them longer to reach the dark-end. Regardless of the subject (e.g., cockroach, human) in many experiments, the performance is improved in the presence of others. However, in some case it is worsened.

Another theory that explained the phenomenon of social facilitation is the distraction conflict theory Opens in new window, proposed by Robert S. Baron, which assumes that the audiences and co-actors both increase arousal. It is also suggested that such arousal stems from conflict between two competing tendencies.

First, the tendency to direct attention to the task being performed. And second, the tendency to direct attention to the audience or co-actors. Such conflict is arousing, and it, in turn, increases the tendencies to perform the dominant responses. If these responses are correct, the performance is enhanced. If they are incorrect, then the performance is impaired.

One major advantage of this theory is that it helps explain why animals, and humans, are affected by the presence of an audience. It has been seen that the animals too experience conflicting tendencies to work on a task, and pay attention to the audience. Thus, they too are susceptible to social facilitation.

Is it true that the presence of others is always arousing, and that participating in a group always leads to enhanced individual performance? Perhaps no, in fact, the opposite may occur. Sometimes, when we are in a group situation, we relax our efforts, and rely on others, to take up the slack. This effect, which is addressed in a designated entry Opens in new window, is called social loafing Opens in new window.