Social Facilitation Psychology Essays

Social Facilitation

Saul McLeod published 2011

Social facilitation can be defined as ‘an improvement in performance produced by the mere presence of others’. There are two types of social facilitation: co-action effects and audience effect.

Studies on social facilitation concern the extent to which a given piece of an individual's behavior is affected by the real, imagined or implied presence of others.

Perhaps the first social psychology laboratory experiment was undertaken in this area by Norman Triplett in 1898.

In his research on the speed records of cyclists, he noticed that racing against each other rather than against the clock alone increased the cyclists' speeds. He attempted to duplicate this under laboratory conditions using children and fishing reels.

There were two conditions: the child alone and children in pairs but working alone. Their task was to wind in a given amount of fishing line and Triplett reports that many children worked faster in the presence of a partner doing the same task.

Triplett's experiments demonstrate the co-action effect, a phenomenon whereby increased task performance comes about by the mere presence of others doing the same task.

The co-action effect may come into operation if you find that you work well in a library in preference to working at home where it is equally quiet (and so on). Other co-action effect studies include Chen (1937) who observed that worker ants will dig more than three times as much sand per ant when working (non-co-operatively) alongside other ants than when working alone and Platt, Yaksh and Darby (1967) found that animals will eat more of their food if there are others of their species present.

Social facilitation occurs not only in the presence of a co-actor but also in the presence of a passive spectator/audience. This is known as the audience effect, surprisingly.

Dashiell (1935) found that the presence of an audience facilitated subjects' multiplication performance by increasing the number of simple multiplications completed. Travis (1925) found that well-trained subjects were better at a psychomotor task (pursuit rotor) in front of spectators. However, Pessin (1933) found an opposite audience effect, namely that subjects needed fewer trials at learning a list of nonsense words when on their own than when in front of an audience.

It seems, then, that the extent of social facilitation or inhibition depends upon the nature of the interaction between the task and the performer. In some cases the presence of co-actors/audience improved the quality of performance (Dashiell 1935) but in others it impaired the quality (though it increased the quantity of, say, multiplications).

According to Cottrell (1968), it’s not the presence of other people that is important for social facilitation to occur but the apprehension about being evaluated by them. We know that approval and disapproval are often dependent on others’ evaluations and so the presence of others triggers an acquired arousal drive based on evaluation anxiety.


Chen, S. C. (1937). The leaders and followers among the ants in nest-building. Physiological Zoology, 10(4), 437-455.

Cottrell, N. B., Wack, D. L., Sekerak, G. J., & Rittle, R. H. (1968). Social facilitation of dominant responses by the presence of an audience and the mere presence of others. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(3), 245.

Dashiell, J. F. (1935). Experimental studies of the influence of social situations on the behavior of individual human adults.

Pessin, J. (1933). The comparative effects of social and mechanical stimulation on memorizing. The American Journal of Psychology, 45(2), 263-270.

PLATT, J. J., YAKSH, T., & DARBY, C. L. (1967). Social facilitation of eating behavior in armadillos. Psychological Reports, 20(3c), 1136-1136.

Travis, L. E. (1925). The effect of a small audience upon eye-hand coordination. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 20(2), 142.

Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. The American journal of psychology, 9(4), 507-533.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2011). Social facilitation. Retrieved from

Mere Presence

Drive Theory

However, there is not simply a nice correlation between an audience/co-actors and improved performance. If you are asked to do something completely new for example, your performance would be worse in front of an audience than on your own.

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To help solve this problem, Robert Zajonc (pronounced [zi - ance]) put forward Drive Theory where he used the term dominant response to refer to the behavior we are most likely to perform in a given situation. This is illustrated in the following study by Michaels et al.

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Aim To test the if the presence of an audience would facilitate well-learned behaviors and inhibit poorly learned.
Method To begin with, student pool players were observed.

Following this, twelve were chosen: six above and six below average. In the second part, four passive observers stood around the table and watched the game.

Results The above average players' accuracy increased from 69 to 80%.

The below average players accuracy fell from 36 to 25%.

Conclusion The results lend support to Zajonc's dominant response theory. The dominant response of skilled pool players is to improve in the presence of an audience, whereas the dominant response of unskilled players is to do worse.
Evaluation The sample used was very small and of a limited demographic (only students)

However, there are some cases where people who are good at their sport do not perform well with an audience but are fine in training. This lead to drive theory to be developed into the inverted You hypothesis which can be represented using the graph below:

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It shows that arousal (more stress, adrenaline etc) will increase with performance until an optimum point where it will decline.

The You of someone who is highly skilled is higher than that of someone unskilled. This explains dominant response; it also means that a well-skilled player needs a lot of arousals to get them started in the first place: explaining why world records are often broken at international tournaments like the Olympics.

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Evaluation Apprehension

This theory of social facilitation was put forward by Cottrell, he said that rather than the mere presence of others, it is the "worry" of being "'judged" that affects performance.

If you are confident in your ability, then being watched makes you perform well, because, in effect, you are showing off. But if you are not confident about the task then you will constantly be worrying about being evaluated. A study for this theory is by Bartis et al (1988)

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Aim To find out whether evaluation apprehension would improve performance on a simple task and inhibit it in a complex one.
Method All participants had the basic task of thinking of different uses for a knife. However, half were asked to think of creative uses' of a knife (complex) and a half to merely list all uses of a knife (simple).

These two groups were further divided between those that were told they would be individually identified (evaluation apprehension) and those whose results would be pooled with everybody else's.

Results In the evaluation apprehension condition, the simple task gave more results but the complex task gave fewer uses for a knife.
Conclusions Evaluation apprehension increases performance on simple tasks but decreases performance on complex ones.
Evaluation This was again an artificial task performed in a laboratory, so the results are not very relevant to the sport.

Distraction Conflict

This is the final major theory of social facilitation. Put forward by Saunders et al (1978), it is based on the following research:

Aim Test the effect of distraction-conflict on performance in a task.
Method Participants were presented with either a simple or difficult task to perform in the presence others who were performing either the same or a different task.
Results Participants in the high distraction condition (with co-actor) performed better on the simple task but worse on the complex.
Conclusion The results provide support for distraction conflict theory.
Evaluation This theory also could explain social facilitation that has been found in animals (for example ants and cockroaches) since these animals can hardly be affected by evaluation apprehension.

The diagram below illustrates how the demands of a task lead to conflict, which produces social facilitation effects.

Questions and Answers

Evaluation apprehension and self-serving attributions?

Need a clear understanding of how evaluation apprehension reduces tendencies to provide self-serving attributions

Although evaluation apprehension may be considered as an external attribution that can affect an individual´s performance, there is no article yet that relates it specifically to self-serving attributions. However, we can provide you with sources to get a better understanding of both of them. To find out more about evaluation apprehension, you can read this extensive model explanation found at Revolvi website. And to learn more about self-serving attributions, we suggest this paper from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

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Am I right in concluding there is a few different theories about social facilitation, each with their own merits?

I haven't quite got the distraction conflict. please, could you elaborate on that for me? many thanks. I am new to this subject, so just trying to get my head around it! I have tried: Reading your articles, and others about social facilitation. I think it was caused by just that it is a new concept for me to understand. it is interesting though and I'd like to understand it better

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There are many theories although it seems like, as this article by Saul McLeod says "the extent of social facilitation or inhibition depends upon the nature of the interaction between the task and the performer". We encourage you to read it to get a better understanding on social facilitation. To get a thorough knowledge about the distraction conflict, we suggest that you read this academic paper presented by Robert S.Baron, although you will have to sign in to the website or pay for the article.

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Referencing this Article

If you need to reference this article in your work, you can copy-paste the following depending on your required format:

APA (American Psychological Association)
Social Facilitation: Drive Theory, Evaluation Apprehension, Distraction Conflict. (2017). In ScienceAid. Retrieved Mar 11, 2018, from

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MLA (Modern Language Association)"Social Facilitation: Drive Theory, Evaluation Apprehension, Distraction Conflict." ScienceAid, Accessed 11 Mar 2018.

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Chicago / "Social Facilitation: Drive Theory, Evaluation Apprehension, Distraction Conflict." Accessed Mar 11, 2018.

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Article Info

Categories : Social

Recent edits by: Denise Currie, Jen Moreau, Jamie (ScienceAid Editor)

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