What Is Social Facilitation? Definition and Examples

How the Presence of Others Impacts Task Performance

Five bicyclists compete in a race.

 Ryan McVay / Getty Images

Social facilitation refers to the finding that people sometimes work more effectively on a task when they’re around others. The phenomenon has been studied for over a century, and researchers have found that it occurs in some situations but not in others, depending on the type of task and context.

Key Takeaways: Social Facilitation

  • Social facilitation refers to the finding that people sometimes perform better on tasks when others are around.
  • The concept was first proposed by Norman Triplett in 1898; psychologist Floyd Allport labeled it social facilitation in 1920.
  • Whether or not social facilitation occurs depends on the type of task: people tend to experience social facilitation for tasks that are straightforward or familiar. However, social inhibition (decreased performance in the presence of others) occurs for tasks that people are less familiar with.

History and Origins

In 1898, Norman Triplett published a landmark paper on social facilitation. Triplett enjoyed bicycle racing, and he noticed that many cyclists seemed to ride faster when they were racing with other riders, compared to when they were riding alone. After examining official records from a cycling association, he found that this was indeed the case—records for races where another rider was present were faster than records for “unpaced” rides (rides where the cyclist was trying to beat someone else’s time, but no one else was currently racing on the track with them).

In order to test experimentally whether the presence of others makes people faster at a task, Triplett then conducted a study that has been considered one of the first experimental social psychology studies. He asked children to try to turn a reel as quickly as possible. In some cases, the children completed the task by themselves and, at other times, they competed with another child. Triplett found that, for 20 of the 40 children studied, they worked faster during competitions. Ten of the children worked more slowly in competitions (which Triplett suggested could be because competition was overstimulating), and 10 of them worked equally quickly whether they were in competition or not. In other words, Triplett found that people sometimes work more quickly in the presence of others—but that this doesn’t always happen.

Does Social Facilitation Always Happen?

After Triplett’s studies were conducted, other researchers also began to investigate how the presence of others impacts task performance. (In 1920, Floyd Allport became the first psychologist to use the term social facilitation.) However, research into social facilitation led to contradictory results: sometimes, social facilitation occurred, but, in other cases, people did worse at a task when someone else was present.

In 1965, psychologist Robert Zajonc suggested a potential way of resolving the discrepancy in social facilitation research. Zajonc reviewed prior research and noticed that social facilitation tended to occur for relatively well-practiced behaviors. However, for tasks that people were less experienced with, they tended to do better when they were alone.

Why does this happen? According to Zajonc, the presence of other people makes people more likely to engage in what psychologists call the dominant response (essentially, our “default” response: the type of action that comes most naturally to us in that situation). For simple tasks, the dominant response is likely to be effective, so social facilitation will occur. However, for complex or unfamiliar tasks, the dominant response is less likely to lead to a correct answer, so the presence of others will inhibit our performance on the task. Essentially, when you’re doing something you’re already good at, social facilitation will occur and the presence of other people will make you even better. However, for new or difficult tasks, you’re less likely to do well if others are around.

Example of Social Facilitation

To give an example of how social facilitation might work in real life, think about how the presence of an audience might affect a musician’s performance. A talented musician who has won numerous awards might feel energized by the presence of an audience, and have a live performance that’s even better than practiced at home. However, someone who is just learning a new instrument might be anxious or distracted by the pressure of performing under an audience, and make mistakes they wouldn’t have made when they practiced alone. In other words, whether or not social facilitation occurs depends on someone’s familiarity with the task: the presence of others tends to improve performance on tasks people already know well, but tends to decrease performance on unfamiliar tasks.

Evaluating the Evidence for Social Facilitation

In a paper published in 1983, researchers Charles Bond and Linda Titus examined the results of social facilitation studies and found some support for Zajonc’s theory. They found some evidence of social facilitation for simple tasks: on simple tasks, people produce a greater quantity of work if others are present (though this work wasn’t necessarily better quality than what people produce when they’re alone). They also found evidence of social inhibition for complex tasks: when the task was complicated, people tended to produce more (and to do work that was higher quality) if they were alone.

Comparison to Related Theories

A complementary theory in social psychology is the theory of social loafing: the idea that people may exert less effort on tasks while they are part of teams. As psychologists Steven Karau and Kipling Williams explain, social loafing and social facilitation occur under different circumstances. Social facilitation explains how we act when the other people present are observers or competitors: in this case, the presence of others can improve our performance on a task (as long as the task is one we have already mastered). However, when the other people present are our teammates, social loafing suggests that we may exert less effort (potentially because we feel less responsible for the group’s work) and our performance on a task may be decreased.

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