The idea of Social Facilitation Theory can be best understood as the tendency of people to perform better when they are being watched or when they are competing with others doing the same task. This is called Social Facilitation.
The theory also states that people are most likely to make errors when they are asked to do tasks they are not familiar with in the presence of observers or competitors. This is called Social Inhibition.
A cyclist is more likely to perform better when competing with other cyclists in comparison to if they were simply pedaling against a clock in a practice run.
An individual performs with more caution and is prone to making errors while doing a driving test in front of an instructor due to nervousness or self doubt.
The concept of Social Facilitation Theory was first introduced in 1898 by Norman Triplett when he noticed cyclists performed better competing with other cyclists. (See: Example 1).
He then took this experiment to a laboratory when he provided some children with some strings and asked them to wind up a fishing line. As predicted, children performed faster while in presence of other children winding up of a fishing line compared to when they were working alone.
It was Allport who coined the term Social Facilitation in 1924. Allport conducted various experiments placing the participants either alone or in groups. And majority of the experiments showed that people in groups performed better than those placed alone. However, at this point in time, Social Facilitation was still limited and was simply understood as “increase in response merely from the sight or sound of others making the same movement.
It was Robert Zajonc who provided the missing piece of the puzzle. In 1956, Zajonc conducted studies to figure out why some people performed better in the presence of others while others’ performance hindered.
His experiments can be simplified into two parts, where he studied people performing simple vs complex task in front of other people. The results were pretty clear and it was found that people performing simple task where they’ve had a lot of practice were able to perform better as opposed to people performing more complex tasks (they were not familiar with) or had little practice at). Thus, the theory of Social Inhibition was born.
In 1965 Zajonc proposed his generalized drive hypothesis for social facilitation as the stern Activation theory, which is also referred to as Zajonc theory. The generalized drive hypothesis was the first theory that addressed both increase and decrease in performance of people in the presence of others.
Zajonc argued that presence of others heightens arousal and thus increases an organism’s ability to perform habitual/well-learned tasks. On the contrary, heightened awareness acts as a flaw when performing complex/unfamiliar tasks.
This theory was based on Yerkes-Dodson’s law, which holds that performance works like an inverse “U” function. Meaning, optimal drive level is higher for easy tasks and lower for complex tasks.
Different Activation Theories include
This theory states that performer is unaware of how observers and competitors act, which heightens their alertness, thus leading them to perform better.
This theory states that when the performer is familiar with how the observer will respond social facilitation will not occur. Instead the performer feels pressured and is not able to perform well.
Challenge and Threat hypothesis
This hypothesis states that people’s bad performance on complex tasks and better performance on simpler tasks in others’ presence is due to the cardiovascular response to the task. When performing a simple task in front of others, the performer has a normal cardiovascular response resulting in better performance. On the other hand, performing complex task in others’ presents creates the cardiovascular response similar to that of a person in threatened position, which has a negative impact on the performance.
Why is Social Facilitation Theory Important to know?
Social Facilitation Theory offers a new perspective in understanding motivation. In a normal scenario, we simply interpret one’s performance based on his/her abilities. However, understanding social facilitation theory means we understand the positive or negative effect the presence of other people has on the performer.
Another quick way of understanding this is that the performance of any individual depends on how good he perceives himself/herself to be when being evaluated.
Another important phenomenon to understand in the context of social psychology, along with Social Facilitation effect and Social Inhibition is Social Loafing.