The tendency for people who are being watched or observed to perform better than they would alone on simple tasks (or tasks they know how to do very well due to repetition). This theory also states that if the task is not simple, then there will be a larger margin of error because of nervousness.
The social facilitation theory first came to light when Norman Triplett began to study competitive nature with children. To do this he gave each child string and had them wind it. When the children were competing, they were much more productive. This thought made Triplett think about removing the competition and replacing it with some form of person who would simply oversee the process.
Gordon Allport continued the process by creating a study where people were told to write lists of words (they were told that they were not competing, but they were in a room with others). This process proved, yet again that people perform better when they think they have to prove something or when they are in competition with another person.
Professor Robert Zajonc’s drive theory was the missing piece of the puzzle. He found that several factors influenced peoples’ productivity directly. Some of these things included: the audience’s attention level (how closely are they watching me…can I get away with slacking off?), whether the supervisor is a man or a women, and simply the worker’s mood. Different levels of attention are paid to these factors and therefore they directly influence how hard we work. Either way, if we are being watched our attention level is higher because we are innately competitive.
Example: Cyclists in a bicycle race tend to ride faster than when they are alone, in an example given by psychologist Norman Triplett.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 20 Jul 2010