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Social facilitation theory


Social psychology deals with our everyday lives and social dynamics. It is the study of how people think or influence others. People’s relationships or how they relate with others is also an important topic in it. The beginning of social psychology is marked by the social facilitation theory. It was Norman Triplett who first observed social facilitation in 1897. Social facilitation concerns how the presence of people facilitates performance. Triplett conducted two studies in this regard to explain social facilitation. He used the data from cycle racing board to explain how the presence of others affected competition.

He called this phenomenon, the ‘dynamogenic effect’. He notes that the presence of others aroused the competitive instinct in the racer. In the process, energy was released which was not available when one was racing alone. Triplett showed that the presence of another person could work to stimulate efforts. His another laboratory test in the same area was related to a kids’ task. Again he examined the effect of competition on performance using data on 40 kids aged 10-13 years. The task was to perform a fishing rod reel winding. The results showed that 20 out of 40 kids performed the task faster under competition.  On 10 kids there was no effect of competition. However, in case of remaining ten, competition impeded performance.

We can come across similar examples of social facilitation in our everyday lives. Suppose there are two people John and Misa working separately. They are made to work together in the same department. What happens is that their performance is raised. In case of John it is raised by 15% and in Misa by 10%. John is ahead of Misa. Yet, both have shown improved performance. Under a competitive situation, people feel put extra efforts into their work than they do generally.

While working alone John and Misa performed at ordinary levels. When they started working in competition to each other, both found more energy which was generally unavailable. Now, imagine another big group of 10 working in a department. 5 out of 10 people are good performers. 3 are average performers and 2 low performers. It shows that half of the team performs better under competitive situations. 3 remain unaffected by the competition. There is no difference in their performance due to competition. However, in case of the bottom two, performance is impeded by competition. This explains the ‘dynamogenic effect’ by Triplett.

Other related Studies

Similar more studies were conducted by other researchers after Triplett on social facilitation. Meuman conducted a study in 1904 to study how social presence facilitated or impeded performance. He left the subjects alone in a testing room. Their arms were strapped to a table and they were made to curl a weight with a finger. Subjects experienced a quick decline in performance. However, they felt a sudden rejuvenation when Meuman appeared in the room. This showed that presence of others led to a surge in energy levels.

Travis conducted another study to explore social facilitation. He subjected the participants to a psychomotor task (pursuit-rotor) for 20 trials a day in lonely conditions for 2 consecutive days until a performance plateau was reached (no improvement in performance noted). For another 10 trials, he either introduced an audience of 4-8 people or no audience. Travis compared the performance of the subjects in the two conditions. Results showed that performance was improved in 18 out of the 22 subjects when they performed before an audience. Overall, the group showed a 3% improvement at an average. This was again a proof that social presence facilitated performance.

Lorenz in a study conducted in 1933 observed that performance increased by up to 40% when people worked in groups. He observed the women factory workers (shoe assembly line) in alone conditions versus group conditions. Lorenz found that the performance of the workers was improved from 43 pairs a day to 60 pairs a day when they worked in groups of 6. This was a significant improvement.

Another significant study was conducted by Berghum and Lehr in this regard in 1963. They studied the performance of National guard trainees working under supervision and in isolation. The task assigned to the trainees was to signal a failed red light. The trainees were divided into two groups. One group worked in isolation. The other worked under the supervision of lieutenant colonel or master sergeant who observed them randomly at intervals. The trainees were provided a training of twenty minutes and then observed for 135 minutes. The supervised subjects showed a 34% higher accuracy than the isolated subjects.

By the time, the experimental session was nearing its end, the accuracy of the supervised trainees was double that of the isolated This was another significant finding highlighting the effect of social facilitation. Not just in humans but this phenomenon has been observed in case of the other species as well. Comparative psychologists have studied the phenomena in rats, ants and chickens. Lonely chickens eat less than those in groups. Rats eat more in pairs and ants do more when they work in pairs. They accomplish more in nest building when they work in pairs. Energy level also remains high in case of ants working in pairs.

Negative Findings

However, not all studies support this view. Some studies also came up with negative findings. These results provided that performance could be impeded by the presence of others. A study conducted by Pessin and Husband in 1933 found that the subjects needed more trials to learn a finger maze under audience conditions. The difference was higher than 11%. The number of errors in audience conditions was also 20% higher. Despite these contradictory findings psychologists believe that social facilitation occurs. A number of modern psychologists have supported this view. Greer in 1983 found that audience could have a directive effect. Sustained booing by the audience could facilitate the performance of the home team and impede that of the visiting team. This is what we also know as home turf advantage. Schwartz and Barsky had also explored the Home Court Advantage in 1977.

Overall, we know that social facilitation occurs in our daily lives. Some students find their performance improving when they work under competitive conditions in class. However, many professionals who are good at their jobs do not find competition improving their performance. Many times an audience can help performance improve. Sometimes it can be a distraction. Social facilitation theory in this way helps understand team dynamics. However, much more research is to be done in this area to understand more precisely under which conditions performance is improved by social facilitation. Still, a large number of research studies have produced favorable results.