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Social Facilitation Can Improve Your Performance

Social facilitation is a psychological concept relating to the tendency for the presence of others to improve a person's performance on a task. While this might seem like a straightforward definition, it is a very complex concept with many nuances.

It also has a long history, which includes the development of a variety of theories to help explain the phenomenon in greater depth. To better understand the extent of this history and the layers of complexity, it's critical to learn about the theories, related concepts, and implications.

History of Social Facilitation

First, let's consider a brief history of how the concept evolved. In its most basic form, it was first proposed by researcher Norman Triplett in 1898. Triplett was fascinated by this idea and went on to study the same concept among children doing a fishing reel task. His results showed that out of 40 children, half worked faster when competing with other children, one quarter worked more slowly, and one quarter showed equal performance.

This wasn't the first time that research revealed conflicting results related to social facilitation. To deal with these conflicting findings, Zajonc and Sales proposed in 1966 that the "dominant response" was the explanatory factor.

They argued that for tasks that come more naturally (the so-called dominant response), performance would be facilitated or improved. But, for complex tasks where that dominant response had not been learned, performance could be impaired.

Definition of Social Facilitation

In terms of a basic definition of social facilitation, social facilitation refers to improvement in performance induced by the real, implied, or imagined presence of others.

Two types of social facilitation have also been defined: co-action effects and audience effects:

  • Co-action effects: A co-action effect refers to your performance being better on a task, merely because other people are doing the same task as you. An example would be working at an office with coworkers instead of in a solitary environment.

  • Audience effects: An audience effect refers to your performance being better because you are doing something in front of an audience. An example would be a pianist playing at home versus on stage in front of a crowd.

In addition, social facilitation is thought to involve three factors: physiological factors (drive and arousal), cognitive factors (distraction and attention), and affective factors (anxiety and self-presentation).

  • Physiological factors: This refers to a higher arousal level and drives to perform that results from your physiological arousal in a situation involving social facilitation.

  • Cognitive factors: This refers to the role of attention and distraction in social facilitation. For example, having people watch you do something might make you feel more focused, or it could be a distraction for you.

  • Affective factors: Finally, affective factors refer to how anxiety and self-presentation influence social facilitation.

Examples of Social Facilitation

What are some examples of social facilitation in action? You've probably experienced some of these in your own life or witnessed them among people you know or those in the public sphere. Some examples include the following:

  • A musician/actor/performer who becomes energized by having an audience and does a better performance

  • Finding that you do better work if you go to a library than if you stay at home to study

  • A weightlifter who can lift heavier weights when doing it in front of others versus doing it alone

Related Concepts

Social facilitation is related to several other concepts including the Yerkes-Dodson Law and Social Loafing.

Yerkes-Dodson law

The Yerkes-Dodson law relates to the theory that performance will vary depending on how easy/difficult a task is (or how familiar you are with a task). In other words, for tasks that you know very well and that you have rehearsed, your performance will be enhanced. On the other hand, for tasks that are complex or for which you have no "dominant response," your performance will be lower. If plotted on a graph, this is thought to be like an "upside down U."

In contrast, imagine a situation in which you've barely studied at all for a test. All of a sudden, you are in a high-pressure situation needing to remember facts that you have little grasp of. This adds to your cognitive load, making your performance even worse than it might have been if you were just testing yourself at home.

Social Loafing

Social loafing is a related but different concept from social facilitation. Social loafing refers to the idea that when a group of people is working together on a task, and no one individual is likely to be the focus (of success or failure), then performance might be decreased overall. This is thought to result because each person feels lower responsibility for the outcome.

Theories on Social Facilitation

We've already touched on the various theories of social facilitation, but we can review these again here all in one place.

Activation Theory

This is the theory proposed by Zajonc, which explains social facilitation as the result of arousal that is triggered by the presence of others (or the perceived evaluation of others).

Alertness Hypothesis

Related to the Activation Theory is the Alertness Hypothesis, which proposes that you become more alert when you have observers and therefore perform better.

Evaluation Apprehension Hypothesis

The Evaluation Apprehension Hypothesis (or Evaluation Approach) posits that it is the evaluation of others that matters rather than just their mere presence.

Self Presentation Theory

Self Presentation Theory asserts that people are motivated to make good impressions with others and maintain a positive self-image. In other words, your performance will only improve when you feel like the audience is evaluating you.

Social Orientation Theory

This theory asserts that people with a positive orientation to social situations will experience social facilitation, whereas those with a negative orientation will experience impairment.


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