In 1898 Norman Triplett reported an experiment in which schoolchildren turned a fishing reel under two conditions: first alone and then standing beside a competitor. Triplett claimed that the competitor’s presence inspired many of his subjects to perform the reel-turning task more quickly. In his 1924 textbook Social Psychology, Floyd Allport offered a behavioral interpretation of Triplett’s result. As Allport explained, responses elicited by a nonsocial stimulus can be augmented by a social stimulus. Allport regarded Triplett’s finding as evidence of this social facilitation and offered some evidence of his own. In Allport’s research, college students solved simple multiplication problems and cancelled vowels from English text more quickly when working alongside other students than when alone.
In contemporary usage, the term social facilitation has a broader meaning, referring to any influence of the presence of others on the individual. The others who are present may be doing the same thing as the individual (that is, coacting), or they may simply be observing. Most often, researchers study influences on the individual’s performance of a task. Sometimes they find that individuals perform tasks better in the presence of others than when alone, but often they find the opposite: worse task performance when others are present. Both performance improvements and performance degradations are termed social facilitation, as the phrase is currently used.
When does the presence of others benefit task performance and when does it impair task performance? Robert Zajonc offered an answer to this question in 1965. According to Zajonc, the presence of others improves the performance of simple tasks and disrupts the performance of complex tasks. Although subsequent research provided some support for Zajonc’s assertion, a large-scale review showed in 1983 that the presence of others impairs complex performances more strongly than it facilitates simple performances (Bond and Titus 1983).
What accounts for these effects? Zajonc proposed an answer to this question too. Zajonc wrote that the presence of others functions as a source of generalized drive, enhancing dominant response tendencies. According to this analysis, the dominant tendency is to give the correct response on simple tasks and to make mistakes on complex tasks. By enhancing these tendencies, the presence of others facilitates simple task performance and impairs complex performance, Zajonc’s drive theory claims.
Other theories of social facilitation have been proposed. These note that the presence of others can induce many psychological states, including self-awareness, distraction, and evaluation apprehension. Psychophysiological theories have been proposed. Whereas an older theory claimed that the presence of others increases general arousal (Guerin 1993), Jim Blascovich and colleagues offered a different view in 1999: When others are present, people who are performing simple tasks manifest physiology indicative of challenge; those who are attempting complex tasks manifest physiology indicative of threat.
The presence of others influences more than task performance. It can encourage the display of prejudice. It can increase, and sometimes decrease, how much people eat. It has many effects on animal behavior. A rudimentary form of social influence, social facilitation has captured psychologists’ attention for more than a century.
Allport, Floyd. 1924. Social Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Blascovich, Jim, Wendy B. Mendes, and Sarah B. Hunter. 1999. Social “Facilitation” as Challenge and Threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 68–77.
Bond, Charles F., Jr., and Linda J. Titus. 1983. Social Facilitation: A Meta-Analysis of 241 Studies. Psychological Bulletin 94: 265–292.
Guerin, Bernard. 1993. Social Facilitation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Zajonc, Robert B. 1965. Social Facilitation. Science 149: 269–274.
Charles F. Bond Jr.