In Section 5-1, you learned about social facilitation, which was defined as the faster (or better) performance of a task when others are present. As you may remember, Triplett (1898) was one of the first researchers to study social facilitation. He became interested in this topic after observing that bicycle racers achieved faster times when racing with competitors than when racing alone. He asked the following research question: does the presence of others cause individuals to work faster? You may remember that, in order to answer this question, Triplett designed an experimental study in which children wound fishing line in one of two conditions: when alone or with other children competing with them. As predicted, he found that children wound the fishing line more rapidly when other children were present and performing the same task. Triplett’s study showed that the presence of others — in this case, competitors — changes the behavior of individuals (although his findings were not a strong demonstration of this; see Section 5-1).
Triplett’s study also showed the applied nature of modern-day social psychology: he had a “real-life” problem he was interested in understanding (racing speeds). In order to understand it better, he designed a laboratory situation related in an important way to the real-life problem, but which left out much of the complexity of real life. The ultimate goal of most research in social psychology is to take the knowledge we gain from such studies and apply it to the real-life situations that inspired the studies in the first place. Important areas of research in this field usually have begun with a practical everyday problem that researchers wished to understand.
The causes of social facilitation were studied for many years after the publication of Triplett’s study (for reviews, see the following: Aiello & Douthitt, 2001; Bond & Titus, 1983; Guerin, 1993; Zajonc, 1985). Later researchers discovered that social facilitation occurs only with relatively simple tasks: as a task becomes more difficult, social facilitation decreases; and eventually task performance becomes worse for individuals in the presence of others. Even more interesting, perhaps, was the discovery that social facilitation occurs in nonhuman animals, even in species with simple nervous systems, such as cockroaches (Zajonc, Heingartner, & Herman, 1969). For example, ants build nests faster in the presence of other ants, cockroaches run through mazes faster in the presence of other cockroaches, rats eat more in the presence of other rats (as do people in the presence of other people).
Have you figured out what could have caused the socially facilitated performance with this wide variety of tasks and species? It may have occurred to you that the presence of others could make a person feel more competitive. In this case, people may work faster and better in the presence of others because they want to outperform them. But it doesn’t seem likely that insects and rodents are motivated by competition. How about the theory that people have performance anxiety (the fear of being evaluated) in the presence of others, and are motivated by this fear to work faster and better at a task? But again, it doesn’t seem likely that ants, rats, and cockroaches would feel performance anxiety. Don’t feel too bad if, at this point, you are not certain of an answer to our question. In fact, research on the social-facilitation effect had almost disappeared by the second half of the 1930’s because researchers were unable to make much sense of the information they had collected.
During the 1960’s, however, a researcher by the name of Robert Zajonc (the last name rhymes with “science”) became interested in explaining the social-facilitation effect (Zajonc, 1965). He developed the following theory: individuals become physiologically aroused when other members of the same species are present. In humans, for example, physiological arousal in the presence of other humans can be measured by increased heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating, as well as by decreased salivation and digestion (Zajonc & Sales, 1966). Zajonc argued that certain responses are more easily elicited when an animal is physiologically aroused. He referred to these as “dominant responses.” For tasks that are simple because they have been well learned, the dominant response is the one that has become habitual because of prior learning. On the other hand, for tasks that are difficult because they have not been well learned, the dominant response is unrelated (on average) to the one that would be correct for that task. Thus, Zajonc predicted that physiological arousal helps individuals perform better when a task has been well learned, but causes the animal to perform worse when the task has not been well learned.
What implications would this explanation have for you when taking a test? For example, where should you take a test if you have studied hard and know the material well? In this case, you should take it in the classroom with everyone else because the task should be relatively simple for you and the dominant responses would be the correct answers. In other words, the presence of others will cause increased physiological arousal and, hence, help you to perform better. Where should you take the test if you haven’t studied very much? In this case, you should be alone when taking the test because the task will be less familiar to you and, hence, your dominant responses are more likely to be incorrect answers: you will need to think longer about the questions before responding. Are you going to follow this advice the next time you take a test? You shouldn’t do this until you have a better idea of whether or not this explanation is a good one. Remember, if you are trying to develop your skepticism and be empirical in your approach to questions, you need to examine observable evidence supporting a theory.
How would you determine if Zajonc’s theory of social facilitation is a good one? Does the presence of others cause physiological arousal that leads to the expression of dominant (well-learned) responses? In order to answer this question, we would want to give research participants familiar tasks (for which they have developed habitual responses) and unfamiliar tasks (for which they have not developed habitual responses). We would then compare their performance on each type of task when they are alone and when they are with others. Furthermore, Zajonc hypothesized that social facilitation is not caused by factors such as performance anxiety or feelings of competitiveness. Thus, when designing a study, we would need to control for the effects of these two factors on performance. Perhaps we could increase arousal by having others present who are not performing the task themselves (thereby eliminating competition as an explanation) and who are paying no attention to the subject performing the task (thereby eliminating performance anxiety). When studies such as these have been performed, it has been found that social facilitation still occurs. These findings support the theory that physiological arousal caused by the presence of others causes social-facilitation effects.
Other researchers, however, have not been satisfied with Zajonc’s explanation of social facilitation (see reviews cited in the third paragraph above). Is this because psychologists can never agree and, hence, that perhaps there is no basis for agreement? Is it really true that one person’s opinion about human behavior is as good as anyone else’s, regardless of the evidence? If the answers to either of these questions were “yes,” this would imply that psychology can never be a science. But the answers are both “no.” Disagreement over the meaning of evidence and its implications for a particular theory is not due to the (supposed) nonscientific nature of psychology. Psychology is a science that investigates very complex phenomena: human behaviors, cognitions, and emotions. In order to study scientifically these complex phenomena, we need to reason carefully about alternative explanations and design research studies that adequately test these explanations. Only after much research has demonstrated the superiority of a particular theory can researchers begin to feel certain that it is more likely than the others to be a good theory. In other words, disagreements in science over research results are merely skeptical thinking in action, not signs that agreement is impossible.
In trying to understand the criticisms of Zajonc’s theory of social facilitation, we must examine two possible problems with his research: First, there may be alternative explanations that have not been considered. For example, it might be that, when in the presence of others, better performance on simple tasks and worse performance on difficult tasks are due simply to the fact that people distract us, thereby making it harder for us to think. It seems obvious that, if we are having difficulty thinking, we will perform worse on harder tasks that require more thought than on simpler tasks that do not. In this case, we would not have to claim that physiological arousal causes social facilitation at all (although it still may). In order to choose between arousal and distraction, we need to perform further experiments — experiments that allow us to rule out one of these explanations.
This brings us to the second problem with Zajonc’s theory: there are multiple causes of any phenomenon. That is, changes in a phenomenon can be the result of changes in any number of factors. No phenomenon has only one cause: multifactorial causation is the rule (see Section 1-6). Thus, even if physiological arousal due to the presence of others is an important cause of social facilitation, this does not mean that other factors cannot also be causes of the social-facilitation effect. It seems reasonable, for instance, to predict that competitive feelings and/or performance anxiety still have effects on our performance in real-life situations even if we can rule them out in a particular laboratory experiment. What we are trying to do in an experiment is show that a particular factor is an important one, but we are not dismissing the possible importance of other factors. For example, think of all of the factors thought to cause cancer. In any one experiment, we want to control for (exclude) the effects of these other factors, not because we think they are unimportant, but precisely because we realize their possible importance and we don’t want them to interfere with our ability to identify the causal effects of the factor we are studying. Thus, with respect to social facilitation, other factors also may be important and further studies would be needed to demonstrate their influence.
Study Questions for Section 6-3
- How would you define “social facilitation” in your own words?
- What is an example of social facilitation from your own life?
- In what way is task difficulty linked to social facilitation?
- What is a problem with the theory that social facilitation is caused by feelings of competitiveness when others are present?
- What is a problem with the theory that social facilitation is caused by feelings of performance anxiety?
- What was Zajonc’s theory of social facilitation?
- How did Zajonc test whether his theory was a good one?
- What does it mean when scientists disagree about the best interpretation of a set of research results?
- What are two general problems with saying that a particular theory provides a complete explanation of something?
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Guerin, B. (1993). Social facilitation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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Retrieved October 24, 2011, from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Triplett/
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Retrieved November 13, 2011, from http://neuron4.psych.ubc.ca/~schaller/Psyc591Readings/Zajonc1965.pdf
Zajonc, R. B., Heingartner, A., & Herman, E. M. (1969). Social enhancement and impairment of performance in the cockroach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 83-92. doi: 10.1037/h0028063
Zajonc, R. B., & Sales, S. M. (1966). Social facilitation of dominant and subordinate responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2, 160-168. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(66)90077-1
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