Social Influence in Sport: "Social Facilitation"

How does the presence of an individual or a group of individuals affect another person's performance?

It is quite difficult to do empirical research in this area:

Social facilitation was first observed by Triplett (1897) - also beginning of social psychology.

Using official data from the Racing Board of the League of American Wheelman compared cyclists:

Triplett's explanation for this phenomenon was what he called a "dynamogenic effect."

The presence of other performers arouse the "competitive instinct" which releases energy not normally available.

He also noted that the sight of movement in another person could perhaps suggest a higher rate of speed and stimulate greater effort.

Triplett (1897) also did a laboratory study to investigate the phenomenon further.

Examines 40 children (10-13 yrs) performing a fishing rod reel winding task. Employing a repeated measures design he had subjects wind as fast as they could either in an alone condition, or in competition with another person.


20/40 wound faster in the competitive situation

10/40 - no effect

10/40 competition impeded performance

Other Early Studies:

Meuman (1904) -

Reported that subjects performing a test of muscular effort and fatigue (i.e., arm strapped to a table, and a weight was curled by a finger), after observing a quick decline in performance, subjects seemed to suddenly be rejuvenated when he suddenly appeared in the testing room.

Subsequent experiments confirmed this observation; a passive spectator did indeed facilitate performance.

Travis (1925) -

Subjects practiced the pursuit-rotor for 20 trials/day until a plateau was reached (no performance improvements) for 2 consecutive days.

An audience of 4-8 people was then introduced for another 10 trials or no audience was provided.

Performance was compared between the alone condition with performance in the audience condition.

Results - 18/22 subjects showed improvements in the audience condition; group averaged about a 3% improvement.

Lorenz (1933) -

Compared the speed of performance of women factory workers on a shoe-assembly line - working alone versus in a 6-person group.


On average, output increased from 43 to over 60 pairs of shoes a day (40% increase in productivity).

Bergum & Lehr (1963):

National Guard Trainees perform a vigilance task - 20 red lights illuminated at 12 rpm. Randomly a light fails (24/hour). Subject's task - signal light which failed to illuminate. (20 minutes of training - monitored for 135 minutes).

Group 1 - performs the task alone

Group 2 - lieutenant colonel or master sergeant observes subjects intermittently.

Results :

Accuracy of the supervised subjects was about 34% higher than the accuracy of trainees working in isolation.

Toward end of experimental session accuracy of supervised subjects was more than 2X as high as subjects working in isolation.

Comparative Psychologists have also observed social facilitation effects across species:

Chickens eat more in the presence of other chickens - sated chicken (alone) will eat 2/3 more when placed in the presence of other chickens.

Rats eat more in pairs than alone.

Ants accomplish more work in nest building when in pairs, and also start to work sooner.

Some negative findings - presence of others hinders performance:

Pessin & Husband (1933) -

An audience condition resulted in more trials being required to learn a finger maze (17.1 versus 19.1; 11.7%). As well - greater number of errors observed when the audience was present (difference = 20%).

Pessin (1933) -

An alone condition was superior to an audience condition in learning nonsense syllables. Subjects practicing in front of spectators required more trials to learn a 7 syllable list (11.3 versus 9.8; 15.3% difference). Interestingly when subjects were asked several days hence to recall syllables learned earlier- did better in an audience condition than alone.

Other cross species studies:

Cockroaches learn an E maze slower in the presence of other cockroaches

Australian Parakeets are slower in learning to distinguish between palatable and unpalatable food in pairs than alone.

Zajonc (1965) - was among the first modern researchers to try and make some sense out of what appeared equivocal findings.

Hullian-Spence --Drive Theory Hypothesizing:

The presence of others, as spectators or coactors (others performing the same task but not necessarily in competition), enhances Drive.


Zajonc's interpretation:



Different effects for simple and complex tasks.

On simple tasks that require very little learning (speed strength), the dominant response is often the correct response, therefore the presence of others would be expected to facilitate performance.

On complex tasks that require considerable learning, early on the dominant response might be expected to be incorrect (speed-accuracy tasks), thus response impairment should occur.

Despite Difficulty in testing Zajonc's hypothesis (activation and habit strength)

Researchers are in basic agreement that social facilitation effects exist; and have attempted to answer the question of what it is about an audience or coactors that influences a performer's behavior?

Cottrell et al.

Replicated Zajonc & Sales (1966) on pseudo words. In addition to an alone condition and an audience condition, they used a "blindfolded" audience condition.

Results: subjects performed the same in the alone condition and the "blindfolded" audience condition.

Contrell proposed that the presence of others is associated through experience with evaluation and it is the anticipation of evaluation which results in increasing levels of arousal.

Henchy and Glass (1968):

An expert audience affected pseudoword recognition performance to a greater extent than did the presence of a non-expert audience. As well, the audience did not have to be physically present for the effect to occur.

Subjects were affected similarly when experts were present or when subjects were told that their performance was being filmed for future examination by an expert audience.(This is a shift from a mechanistic presence to a psychological presence.)

Some studies suggest that performance in front of friends and family members may sometimes be even more anxiety-provoking than in front of strangers.

Familiar spectators seemingly provide a greater potential to make critical evaluations of performance - may lead to embarrassment, ridicule, loss of self-esteem.

On the other hand performers may perform better if they feel they can meet or exceed the expectations of spectators. However, if they do not expect to meet these standards, they may become anxious or frustrated and their performance may deteriorate. (perceived degree of discrepancy between the standards held by spectators and the expectations of the performer can be critical in determining audience effects).

Other ideas besides evaluation that may mediate social facilitation effect:

Baron (1986)

It is the distracting quality of spectators that is critical. Spectators may divert one's attention from the task at hand. This may detract from performance and lead to arousal because of the conflict experienced between attention to the task and to the observers.

Thus spectators may be arousing because of: (a) unpredictability, (b) capacity to make negative evaluations, (c) a need to monitor what the audience is doing or how they are reacting, and (c) potential to distract performer from the task.

Self-Theories and Social Facilitation:

Bond (1982)

Individuals are motivated by concerns for self-presentation.; people wish to be judged in favorable terms and are thus motivated to work hard when observed.

Wicklund and Duval (1971) -

Spectators increase subjective or private awareness. When individuals become self-aware, they become aware of discrepancies between ideal or desired performance levels and attained performance. This may increase efforts to do well. Such efforts may not be translated into performance facilitation when individuals try too hard on tasks involving a high level of skill.

Seemingly, if self-theories connoting self-presentation are valid, one would expect our self presentation to be better if we give the audience what it wishes to see.

Home Court Advantage - One would expect teams to perform best when they are in front of their home crowds.

Schwartz & Barsky (1977)

Analyzed 1,880 mlb, 1,092 football, 542 NHL, and 1,485 college basketball games. Home advantage -

  • baseball (53%),
  • football (60%),
  • basketball (64%)
  • hockey (64%).

Baumeister (1985) in an article entitled "The Championship Choke" claims that contrary to conventional wisdom, the home field some times can be a disadvantage. Especially when a championship is at stake.

Surveyed World Series results beginning with 1924 (first year that the current scheduling practice began with games 1,2, 6,7 at one teams ball park, 3, 4, 5 at the others). Excluded 4 game sweeps, since home field effects would be more evident with closely matched teams (eliminated 10 series-leaving 49).

Results: Home teams won more than 60% of all the first and second games. But in the final games (either 5, 6, or 7), home teams have won less than half the time. In 26 series that went to the seventh game, home teams' won only 38.5% of the time!

Doing a similar analysis with NBA playoff games and league championships 1967-1982 (41 contests):

In the first 4 games home teams won 70% of the time (remarkable since half of the games were played at the home of the poorer team). But did home teams fare better in final games (usually at the home of the team with a better season record)?

Home team won 40% of the time.

To get some idea of what is happening to performance - he looked at fielding and foul shooting (two performance statistics that are somewhat independent of the opposing team's performance).

In baseball, home teams make 2X as many errors in final games as in games 1 or 2. Visitor's fielding tends to improve slightly. In basketball, during games 1 - 4 both teams have about the same foul shooting percentage. In the final game, the visitor's percentage stays constant, while the home team drops several percentage points.

It appears then that the final game disadvantage seems to be a function of the home team "choking."

Baumeister has argued that the home crowd can increase an individual's self-consciousness, which disrupts the automatic quality of skilled actions (opposite of "flow").

Playing for the championship in front of the home crowd would likely increase one's level of self-consciousness, but not necessarily affect a visiting team.

He found that people who were high in self-consciousness to start with choked less on average than people who are usually less self-conscious, arguing that the former individual is less disrupted by the increased self-focus created from pressure to do well, because self-focus is more of a normal operating tendency for them.

In other studies, Baumeister and his colleagues, studied this self-consciousness/choking phenomenon as a function of age:

They hypothesized that preadolescent children may lack the capacity to become self-conscious and therefore may be relatively immune from choking before an audience. They found that for players up to about 12 an audience generally improved game scores; teenagers were especially prone to choking; and adults were less so.

Directive Effects of an Audience - audience acts to reward and punish certain behaviors of the players, coaches, and officials by their actions. (Cheers, boos, and no reactions).

Greer (1983) -

Found that sustained booing in basketball games facilitated the overall performance level of the home team and inhibited the performance of the visiting team. The strongest effect involved increased rule violations called on the visiting team, suggesting a possible impact both on the behavior of the visiting team, and on the referees.

Varca (1980) - examined home and away performance of male college basketball teams

Looked at 10 teams in SEC round robin schedule. Found that home teams won significantly more than visiting teams (70%). On average home teams scored 75.4 while away teams scored 71.0). At home more rebounds (37.5 vs 34.4), more steals (6.6 vs. 5.3), fewer fouls (20.6 vs 21.9), and more blocked shots (2.8 vs 2.3). No differences in field goal or foul shooting %. Notion that home teams outperformed opponents with respect to functional aggression (rebounds, blocked shots, steals), while the visitors aggressed more with respect to dysfunctional behavior (fouls).

Home court effects seem to be most potent for sports where the crowds are closer to the players and action is more continuous (e.g., basketball and hockey as opposed to baseball and football).

Team Characteristics - Hypotheses

Social support provided by a cohesive team may have a calming effect on athletes or teams in otherwise highly stressful spectator situations. (players provide mutual encouragement).

Spectator impact should be maximal for athletic events that involve individual performances and minimal for those that involve joint activities in which individual contributions cannot be clearly distinguished by observers (lineman in football-division of audience impact because it is shared with one's team members). When individuals are not individually accountable, they may reduce their efforts or "loaf" even in front of spectators.

As the number of spectators increases, social impact increases, but as the number of actors or performers increases, the impact of the spectators should be reduced. In most team situations there is a differential with pitchers and quarterbacks getting more spectator attention-thus making them possibly more susceptible to spectator variables.

Suggestions for Dealing with Audiences