Social facilitation is a concept in psychology that describes the often-observed phenomenon that people work harder and perform better on tasks in the presence of other people.
In other words, people do worse on tasks alone and perform better when they are working alongside someone else or in the presence of other people.
Social facilitation may seem like a simple concept. However, social facilitation is not a universal rule. Depending on the type of task and the people involved, performance or effort on tasks can be impaired by the presence of other people.
Social facilitation is a long-studied concept in social psychology with many proposed causes, related theories, and real-world implications.
Definition of Social Facilitation
The first published observation of social facilitation was by Norman Triplett in 1898. Triplett observed that cyclists consistently rode faster in competition compared to when they were training alone (Triplett, 1898).
Floyd Allport later coined the term social facilitation in 1924. He defined the phenomenon as:
“an increase in response merely from the sight or sound of others making the same movement” (p. 262).
Since its conception, social facilitation has been studied extensively in psychology and is thought to be influenced by several factors.
These factors can include the task’s difficulty, the individual’s level of expertise with the task, the individual’s level of confidence, and the level of social support or evaluation present in the situation.
Several proposed causes and processes are involved in social facilitation, including co-action effects, audience effects, and cognitive, affective, and physiological factors.
Social Facilitation Examples
- Co-action effects increasing performance: A co-action effect may occur if you work and study better in a library or coffee shop alongside other people working compared to working alone at home.
- Co-action effects increasing performance in animals: Co-action effects aren’t just observed in people. Ants are also social creatures, and research has shown that ants are more productive working and digging alongside other ants than when they dig alone (Chen, 1937).
- Audience effects increasing performance: An audience effect may occur if a musician finds that they perform better in concert in front of a crowd than when rehearsing alone.
- Co-action effects decreasing performance: Imagine taking a college entrance exam that you haven’t studied well for. Taking that exam surrounded by other people working may distract you or increase negative emotions, leading to worse performance than what you got on at-home practice exams.
- Audience effects decreasing performance: The presence of spectators or an audience could decrease performance if the presence of the audience diverts attention away from the task. For example, imagine you must give a presentation for a class, but you’re terrified of public speaking. It may be much harder to deliver that presentation well in front of a class than when practicing at home.
- Simple tasks: Straightforward and highly practiced tasks seem to benefit more from social facilitation than complex tasks because they do not require much attention. For example, co-action effects likely occurred in the cyclist study because racing was a well-learned task for all cyclists.
- Complex tasks: More complex tasks may not benefit from social facilitation, and the presence of others can negatively impact performance. More complex tasks require a lot of attention, and our stress response can be too strong (Zajonc & Sales, 1966). For example, suppose a medical student is doing a complex procedure for the first time in front of their classmates and instructors. In that case, they may find the task much harder than anticipated due to the pressure of the situation.
- Cognitive factors impacting performance: Cognitive factors impacting social facilitation include focus and attention. For some, the presence of other people may increase focus because they know others are watching them.
- Affective factors impacting performance: Affective factors are also known as emotional factors. For some, the presence of other people may increase effort because we, as humans, tend to care about what other people think.
- Social loafing decreasing preperformance: Have you ever been part of a group project where it felt like nothing was getting done? This could be an example of social loafing, where no one is taking the lead on the project resulting in decreased motivation, effort, and overall performance.
- Group polarization and conformity: Have you ever watched a political convention? Political conventions can often be prime examples of group polarization and conformity because the individuals involved may shift their ideologies to more extreme candidates or conform to platforms they do not agree with to stay in the good graces of the political party.
What Causes the Social Facilitation Effect?
- Co-action Effects: Co-action effects are when an individual’s performance improves because of other people performing the same task. Early research focused on co-action effects as the leading cause of social facilitation (Triplett, 1898; Uziel, 2007). The person performing the task simultaneously as the individual is known as the co-actor.
- Audience Effects: Social facilitation can occur not only in the presence of a co-actor but also in the presence of a passive spectator or audience. Audience effects refer to when an individual’s performance on a task improves just because they are in the company of others (Dashiell, 1935; Uziel, 2007).
- Cognitive Factors: Social facilitation can be impacted by cognitive factors like motivation, distraction, and attention. When we are doing a task in the presence of others, there is a conflict between giving attention to the task or the other people (Baron, 1986; Guerin & Innes, 1984). This attention conflict is thought to impact task performance for simple tasks positively.
- Affective Factors: Social facilitation can be impacted by affective or emotional factors like anxiety and self-esteem. Increased task performance can be increased because people care if the audience approves or disapproves of their work (Cottrell et al., 1968; Guerin & Innes, 1984). However, people with lower self-esteem or confidence may see their performance decrease in the presence of others.
- Physiological Factors: Social facilitation can be impacted by physiological factors like arousal and your body’s stress response (Guerin & Innes, 1984; Zajonc & Sales, 1966). Arousal affects performance by increasing an individual’s focus and attention on the task at hand.
The Impact of Social Facilitation on Behavior
Though the research on the effects of social facilitation is mixed and can depend on the individual and the task at hand, social facilitation has several implications for understanding human behavior.
Social facilitation relates to concepts include group dynamics, social loafing, conformity and group polarization because these are all dynamics that demonstrate how the presence of others can influence an individual’s behavior.
- Conformity is the phenomenon of going along with the group.
- Group polarization is the tendency for groups to shift toward the extremes of their ideology or decision-making. Social facilitation can contribute to conformity or polarization because when an individual performs a task in front of an audience or alongside others, they may be more likely to conform to group norms or expectations or shift their ideology to fit in or be accepted by the group.
- Social loafing is another related concept to social facilitation. It demonstrates that sometimes the presence of other people hurts task performance. Social loafing refers to the phenomenon that when a group of people is working on a task together, overall effort and performance decrease because no individual feels responsible for the task (Simms & Nichols, 2014). Groups are at higher risk of social loafing when the group is large and the task is simple.
Social facilitation is when the presence of other people increases an individual’s performance on a task, whether real, implied, or imagined.
Like many early proposed psychological phenomena, social facilitation has been thoroughly examined and tested in diverse situations.
Social facilitation has important implications for individual and group behavior and understanding it’s impacts could even help you improve your productivity or performance. Importantly, individual characteristics, like anxiety, and task characteristics, like complexity, can negatively impact individual performance. So, the presence of other people does not guarantee improved effort, motivation, or performance.
Overall, social facilitation can positively and negatively affect an individual’s performance, depending on the specific situation and the individual’s characteristics.
Allport, F. H. (1924). Response to social stimulation in the group. Social psychology, 11, 260.
Baron, R. S. (1986). Distraction-conflict theory: Progress and problems. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 19, pp. 1–40). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60211-7
Chen, S. C. (1937). The leaders and followers among the ants in nest-building. Physiological Zoology, 10(4), 437–455. https://doi.org/10.1086/physzool.10.4.30151429
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, 245–250. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0025902
Dashiell, J. F. (1935). Experimental studies of the influence of social situations on the behavior of individual human adults. In A Handbook of Social Psychology (pp. 1097–1158). Clark University Press.
Guerin, B., & Innes, J. M. (1984). Explanations of social facilitation: A review. Current Psychological Research & Reviews, 3(2), 32–52. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02686548
Simms, A., & Nichols, T. (2014). Social loafing: A review of the literature. J Manage, 15.
Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. The American Journal of Psychology, 9(4), 507–533. https://doi.org/10.2307/1412188
Uziel, L. (2007). Individual differences in the social facilitation effect: A review and meta analysis. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(3), 579–601. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2006.06.008
Zajonc, R. B., & Sales, S. M. (1966). Social facilitation of dominant and subordinate responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2(2), 160–168. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(66)90077-1
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.