What Is Social Facilitation?

Group of people having a conversation.
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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 actually 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 first studied bicycle racing by looking at records from a cycling association. He noticed a curious phenomenon whereby cyclist who were racing against others performed better than those who were trying to beat their own times.

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 well-practiced tasks that come naturally (the default or dominant response), performance would be facilitated (in other words, for simple tasks).

But, for complex tasks where it was likely no dominant response had been learned, performance would not be facilitated and 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 there are other people 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 drive 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 refers 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 is able to 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 like like an "inverse U."

As an example, consider that if you have studied well for an exam, your performance might be better in a testing situation because your alertness increases (your focus) and you work more quickly and with greater precision than when you are just testing yourself at home.

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 individual 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.

Feedback Loop Model

The Feedback Loop Model proposes that when being observed by others, you become more aware of yourself, and that this state makes you more aware of differences between how you want to behave and how you actually behave. An example of this would be working more diligently on a task when others are watching, because you become more sensitive to mistakes you would normally make.

Capacity Model

The Capacity Model refers to the idea that you have a limited capacity in terms of your working memory and that influences how tasks are affected. Those that require less working memory (easy tasks) are enhanced, while those that require more working memory (hard tasks) are done more poorly.

Research on Social Facilitation

What about recent research on social facilitation?

In a 2002 meta analysis. three conclusions were drawn. First, it was determined that the presence of others only increased arousal when completing a complex task. Second, the presence of others increased speed of performance for a simple task, but decreased it for a complex task. Finally, it was shown that social facilitation effects did not relate to evaluation apprehension.

Later, in 2012, Murayama and Elliot showed in another meta-analysis that performance goals were more important in terms of effects on performance than was the effect of competition with other people.

Influencing Factors

What factors influence social facilitation? We've already considered many of these, but let's create a summary as a reminder:

  • If a task is difficult or complex, social facilitation is less likely to occur. Instead, impairment in task performance might happen.
  • People who are more confident or look more favorably on social situations may see their performance enhanced compared to those who view them negatively or who have low self-esteem.
  • Factors such as the supportiveness of the audience, how close it is, and it's size may play a role in social facilitation.

Implications of Social Facilitation

What implications can we draw from social facilitation? In other words, why do you need to know about this concept or why should it be important to you?

If you think about it, understanding this concept may help you to improve your own performance on tasks.

Below are some tips on how to do that, whether you are applying it to your grades in school or performance in a sporting venue:

  • Do something alone in the beginning until you grasp complex concepts or skills, then do it in a group to improve your performance.
  • Practice tasks until they become natural (or the dominant response) so that you can perform better when put in front of an audience.

A Word From Verywell

The concept of social facilitation has a long history and involves a variety of interrelated ideas. The main takeaway should be that sometimes working with others (or performing for an audience) will enhance your performance, and other times it may hinder it. If you can learn the factors that influence those outcomes, you can put social facilitation to work for you in all situations.

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Article Sources
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  1. Triplett N. The Dynamogenic Factors in Pacemaking and Competition. The American Journal of Psychology. 1898;9(4):507-533. doi:10.2307/1412188.

  2. Zajonc RB, Sales SM. Social Facilitation of Dominant and Subordinate Responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 1966;2:160-168. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(66)90077-1

  3. Carver CS, Scheier MF. The Self-Attention-Induced Feedback Loop and Social Facilitation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 1981;17(6):545-568. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(81)90039-1

  4. Rafaeli S, Rafaeli S, Noy A. Correspondence (September). European Journal of Information Systems. 2002;11(3):196-207.

  5. Murayama K, Elliot AJ. The competition-performance relation: a meta-analytic review and test of the opposing processes model of competition and performance. Psychological Bulletin. 2012;138(6):1035-1070. doi:10.1037/a0028324

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