Social Facilitation versus Social Interference
Here’s a puzzle for you. Sometimes having other people watch us work makes us work faster, but other times having other people watch slows us down.
For example: I was at the gym recently lifting weights, and a friend came over to talk. I was just getting ready to do bench presses at the time, and he offered to spot me (i.e., stand there and help if the bar got too heavy). With him watching, I focused more on what I was doing and was able to lift substantially more than I had before.
In contrast, when I write (as I am doing now), I have to be alone. When a family member comes into my office when I writing, I slow way down to the point where I no longer even try. I’m not able to concentrate on my work.
Why the difference?
It turns out that the effect of others watching us work varies according to how complex the task is. Bench pressing, though a lot of work, is relatively simple. Up, down, up, down, and so forth. In contrast, writing is much more complex involving choices of paragraph order, sentence structure, grammar, word choice, etc…
When other people watch us do simple tasks, it tends to make us do them better. This is called the social facilitation effect, and it was discovered in one off the earliest social psychological experiments. In 1897 (when your great-great grandparents were alive) Norman Triplett did a study in which he had some boys cast a fishing rod and reel it in as fast as they could. Sometimes they were by themselves, other times they had other boys there also casting and reeling. The boys reeled much faster when they had other boys around. Triplett found the same effect with bicycle riding. Having other people watch us provides psychological arousal and so we apply extra energy and effort to our task.
When other people watch us do complex tasks, we also encourages tend to put in extra effort-- but with different results. Complex tasks take time and concentration, and the extra energy we apply to them when someone is watching causes us to try too hard. We don’t take the time to do it correctly. Also, the other person can distract us. This is called social interference.
Here’s something really cool about the social facilitation and interference effects—they apply to animals as well as humans. Robert Zanjonc did a famous study in which he demonstrated these effects with cockroaches, of all animals. He created two mazes, one easy, one hard. Behind the maze walls were other cockroaches, and sometimes the walls were glass, so that the other cockroaches could watch and other times they were covered with paper, so that they couldn’t watch. (Stay with me here).
What were the results? With the easy maze, a cockroach ran the maze faster when it could see other cockroaches—social facilitation. With the hard maze, a cockroach ran slower with others watching—social interference. Wow, who would have guessed? (Zajonc also demonstrated the effect with rats, which for some reason I find much less interesting than with cockroaches).
There are several wrinkles to these effects. For one thing, what is complex for one person might be simple for another, and so they would have different reactions to having others watching. For example, my grade school son is learning to play the violin, and he plays a mean “Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star” here at home. At recitals, however, with other parents watching, he gets nervous and doesn’t do as well. In contrast, a concert violinist, who practices hours and hours a day, is skilled enough that having a group of people watch him or her would inspire them to play even better.
Another wrinkle has to do with whether or not we care about the people watching us. If we think highly of them, and value their esteem, then social facilitation and social interference effects are stronger. If we don’t know them, or otherwise don’t care about them, then these effects are weaker. For example, I have difficulty writing when family or friends watch me, but I have no problem doing it at the library, where there are other people around, but I don’t know them. Likewise, a runner running through a neighborhood far from their home probably isn’t inspired by the strangers who would be watching them.
What does this mean for you? Well, first off, this knowledge gives you a distinct advantage the next time you go to the cockroach races. Also, it might help you structure your own work for maximum performance. If you find the work relatively simple, but are having trouble getting motivated, put yourself in a place where others can watch you work. However, if it’s work that you have difficulty with, you might want to find a place to be by yourself or at least among people you don’t know.