We have all done it. Whether running a race, changing a car tyre or tossing a pancake, we did it better than ever before, whilst we were in front of an audience, and inside we said ‘YES!’ That is an example of social facilitation, where the fact of having people observe us doing a simple task, or having them complete the same task alongside us, spurs us on to do it better. However when we have been taking driving test or other stressful task that we are not so familiar with, we have not done as well as we knew we could. It was not all about nerves, it was about social facilitation.
Doing it better
The concept of social facilitation was first identified by Norman Triplett in 1898, when he noticed that cyclists performed better when competing against other cyclists, than they did against a clock in a time trial. To confirm his theory he undertook and experiment in the laboratory, asking children to wind up a fishing line, and true to the concept, when there were two children winding together, they both worked faster than when alone. This is the ‘co-action effect’ where the presence of someone else doing the same task spurs your own performance. The term social facilitation was first coined by Floyd Allport in 1928.
Later studies showed that it was not just the presence of others undertaking the same task i.e. co-actors, but being observed by passive spectators that could bring about an improvement in performance.
There is however a downside to social facilitation. If the task is not familiar to the person then they will perform worse when there are co-actors present or they are being observed. This is a reflection of the Yerkes–Dodson law which states that there is an empirical relationship between a person’s arousal and their performance. The Yerkes-Dodson law suggests we perform better when there is some stress. Too little stress however, and we are not motivated to do our best and too much leads us to make errors. Furthermore, there is evidence that the more kinaesthetic i.e. physical, the task, the greater the improvement in performance. It is as if our hand (or foot) eye co-ordination has to “learn” the behaviour just as we might learn the words to a song, script or poem.
Social facilitation and competence
The concept of social facilitation appears to follow the four stages of competence model where a person is initially unconsciously incompetent at a task, then becomes conscious of their incompetence, progressing to be consciously competent and lastly unconsciously competent. It is when person is unconsciously competent that social facilitation appears to have the greatest effect.
How does it work?
There are three respected theories for social facilitation. Robert Zajonc, in 1965, with reference to the Yerkes-Dodson’s law, proposed the Activation Theory for social facilitation, arguing that the presence of others causes a level of arousal which enables people to perform better. His “Generalized Drive Hypothesis” supported the Yerkes-Dodson law, but through experiments he found that social facilitation was also experienced by cockroaches, who would run through easy mazes faster when they were with co-actors, and even when other cockroaches were watching them.
Henchy and Glass, in 1968 proposed the Evaluation Approach to social facilitation, stating it was the fear of evaluation that drove the arousal in the participant.
Cottrell, also in 1968, stated that it was not the act of being observed that caused the arousal and subsequent change in performance, rather the anticipation of being assessed or evaluated by the observers that stimulate the feelings.
What are the implications?
Research undertaken by De Castro in 1994 identified that social facilitation can also affect food intake because when people are with family and friends they extend the time that they spend eating a meal. The hard numbers he observed were that men would eat 36% more food when they were with other people than when alone, and women an extra 40%. His analysis was that there was a time-extension model of social facilitation. If the meal was a social occasion, then people would spend longer at the table and thus eat more.
On a more positive front than waistlines, social facilitation is often the spur behind team performance in both sport and industry. Again it applies most to the repetitive, routine or simple tasks, but there is a clearly identified link between the effort and performance of people working together. In an industrial setting this may be in the production of widgets or the picking of crops. In sport, besides the cycling example given before, runners in distance races will often say they are ‘spurred’ on by those around them.
So what is the cause of social facilitation?
Despite the 116 years of observation, there is still some controversy amongst psychologists as to the origin of social facilitation. Whether it is evolutionary, i.e. part of the basic biology of humans and animals, whether it is a result of social learning by the person or animal through interaction with all their peers, or if it results from an individual’s interactions with others. So if you want to improve anything from swimming; other physical challenges; to making buttons or badges, do it together, it’s more fun and it may even improve your performance!