You are here

Social Facilitation and Social Inhibition

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

In one of the earliest social psychological studies, Norman Triplett (1898) investigated how bicycle racers were influenced by the social situation in which they raced. Triplett found something very interesting: the racers who were competing with other cyclists on the same track rode significantly faster than those who were racing alone, against the clock. This led Triplett to hypothesize that people perform tasks better when the social context includes other people than when they do the tasks alone. Subsequent findings validated Triplett’s results, and other experiments have shown that the presence of others can increase performance on many types of tasks, including jogging, playing pool, lifting weights, and working on mathematics and computer problems (Geen, 1989; Guerin, 1983; Robinson-Staveley & Cooper, 1990; Strube, Miles, & Finch, 1981). The tendency to perform tasks better or faster in the presence of others is known as social facilitation.

Although people sometimes perform better when they are in groups than they do alone, the situation is not that simple. Perhaps you can remember a time when you found that a task you could perform well alone (e.g., giving a presentation, playing a video game, shooting a basketball free throw, or making a soccer penalty kick) was not performed as well when you tried it with, or in front of, others. Thus it seems that the conclusion that being with others increases performance cannot be entirely true and that sometimes the presence of others can worsen our performance. The tendency to perform tasks more poorly or slower in the presence of others is known as social inhibition. So, as the presence of other people can both improve and worsen individual performance, it is important to explore the different conditions that promote these opposite outcomes.

To study social facilitation and social inhibition, Hazel Markus (1978) gave research participants both an easy task (putting on and tying their shoes) and an unfamiliar and thus more difficult task (putting on and tying a lab coat that tied in the back). The research participants were asked to perform both tasks in one of three social situations: (a) alone, (b) with a confederate present who was watching them, or (c) with a confederate present who sat in the corner of the room repairing a piece of equipment without watching. As you can see in Figure 10.4, Markus found first that the difficult task was performed more slowly overall. But she also found an interaction effect, where the participants performed the easy task faster but the more difficult task slower when a confederate was present in the room. Furthermore, it did not matter whether the other person was paying attention to the performance or whether the other person just happened to be in the room working on another task—the mere presence of another person nearby influenced performance.

Figure 10.4 Group Task Performance 

In this experiment, participants were asked to perform a well-learned task (tying their shoes) and a poorly learned task (putting on a lab coat that tied in the back). There is both a main effect of task difficulty and a task-difficulty-by-performance-condition interaction. Data are from Markus (1978).

These results convincingly demonstrated that working around others could either help or hinder performance. But why would this be? One explanation of the influence of others on task performance was proposed by Robert Zajonc (1965). As shown in Figure 10.5, Zajonc made use of the affective component of arousal in his explanation. Zajonc argued that when we are with others, we experience more arousal than we do when we are alone, and that this arousal increases the likelihood that we will perform the dominant response—the action that we are most likely to emit in any given situation.

Figure 10.5 Explaining Social Facilitation and Social Inhibition 

According to the social facilitation model of Robert Zajonc (1965), the mere presence of others produces arousal, which increases the probability that the dominant response will occur. If the dominant response is correct, the task is performed better, whereas if the dominant response is incorrect, the task is performed more poorly.

The important aspect of Zajonc’s theory was that the experience of arousal and the resulting increase in the performance of the dominant response could be used to predict whether the presence of others would produce social facilitation or social inhibition. Zajonc argued that if the task to be performed was relatively easy, or if the individual had learned to perform the task very well (a task such as pedaling a bicycle or tying one’s shoes), the dominant response was likely to be the correct response, and the increase in arousal caused by the presence of others would improve performance. On the other hand, if the task was difficult or not well learned (e.g., solving a complex problem, giving a speech in front of others, tying a lab apron behind one’s back), the dominant response was likely to be the incorrect one; and because the increase in arousal would increase the occurrence of the (incorrect) dominant response, performance would be hindered.

Zajonc’s theory explained how the presence of others can increase or decrease performance, depending on the nature of the task, and a great deal of experimental research has now confirmed his predictions. In a meta-analysis, Bond and Titus (1983) looked at the results of over 200 studies using over 20,000 research participants and found that the presence of others did significantly increase the rate of performance on simple tasks and decrease both the rate and the quality of performance on complex tasks.

One interesting aspect of Zajonc’s theory is that because it only requires the concepts of arousal and dominant response to explain task performance, it predicts that the effects of others on performance will not necessarily be confined to humans. Zajonc reviewed evidence that dogs ran faster, chickens ate more feed, ants built bigger nests, and rats had more sex when other dogs, chickens, ants, and rats, respectively, were around (Zajonc, 1965). In fact, in one of the most unusual of all social psychology experiments, Zajonc, Heingartner, and Herman (1969) found that cockroaches ran faster on straight runways when other cockroaches were observing them (from behind a plastic window) but that they ran slower, in the presence of other roaches, on a maze that involved making a difficult turn, presumably because running straight was the dominant response, whereas turning was not.

Although the arousal model proposed by Zajonc is perhaps the most elegant, other explanations have also been proposed to account for social facilitation and social inhibition. One modification argues that we are particularly influenced by others when we perceive that the others are evaluating us or competing with us (Szymanski & Harkins, 1987). This makes sense because in these cases, another important motivator of human behavior—the desire to enhance the self—is involved in addition to arousal. In one study supporting this idea, Strube and his colleagues (Strube, Miles, & Finch, 1981) found that the presence of spectators increased the speed of joggers only when the spectators were facing the joggers and thus could see them and assess their performance.

The presence of others who expect us to do well and who are thus likely to be particularly distracting has been found to have important consequences in some real-world situations. For example, Baumeister and Steinhilber (1984) found that professional athletes frequently performed more poorly than would be expected in crucial games that were played in front of their own fans.

Figure 10.6 Process Losses and Process Gains 

So far in this section, we have been focusing on how being in a group affects individual performance. What about the broader question of whether performance is enhanced when people work in groups, compared with what group members would have achieved if they had been working on their own? Working in groups clearly has some benefits. Because groups consist of many members, group performance is almost always better than the performance of an individual acting alone. Many heads are better than one in terms of knowledge, collective memory, physical strength, and other abilities. The group from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that worked together to land a human on the moon, a music band whose members are writing a new song together, or a surgical team in the middle of a complex operation may coordinate their efforts so well that is clear that the same outcome could never have occurred if the individuals had worked alone, or in another group of less well-suited individuals. In these cases, the knowledge and skills of the individuals seem to work together to be effective, and the outcome of the group appears to be enhanced. When groups work better than we would expect, given the individuals who form them, we call the outcome a process gain.

There are at least some data suggesting that groups may in some cases experience process gains. For instance, Weber and Hertel (2007) found in a recent meta-analysis that individuals can in some cases exert higher motivation when working in a group compared with working individually, resulting in increased group performance. This is particularly true for less capable group members who seem to become inspired to work harder when they are part of a group. On the other hand, there are also costs to working in groups—sometimes being in a group can stifle creativity and increase procrastination, for example. In these cases, the groups experience process losses. A process loss occurs when groups perform more poorly than we would expect, given the characteristics of the members of the group.

One way to think about the benefits of groups is to compare the potential productivity of the group—that is, what the group should be able to do, given its membership—with the actual productivity of the group. For example, on a rope-pulling task, the potential group productivity (the strength with which the group should pull when working together) would be calculated as the sum of all the individual inputs. The difference between the expected productivity of the group and the actual productivity of the group (i.e., the extent to which the group is more or less than the sum of its parts) is determined by the group process, defined as the events that occur while the group is working together on the task. When the outcome of the group performance is better than would be expected on the basis of the members’ characteristics (the group pulls harder than expected), there is a process gain; when the outcome of the group performance is worse than would be expected on the basis of the members’ characteristics, there is a process loss. Mathematically, we can write the following equation to express this relationship:

actual productivity = potential productivity − process loss + process gain.

Group performance is another example of a case in which person and situation variables work together because it depends on both the skills of the people in the group and the way these resources are combined as the group members work together. Let’s now turn to exploring these personal and situational factors in more detail.

Figure 10.7 People work together in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons. Groups are sometimes effective, but they are often less so than we might hope.