Social Facilitation Theory: Definition and Examples

Take-home Messages

  • Social facilitation refers to the finding that people sometimes show an increased level of effort as a result of the real, imagined, or implied presence of others.
  • The concept was first identified by Norman Triplett in 1898 when he noticed that cyclists’ performance was facilitated (helped) when training as a group.
  • Psychologist Floyd Allport labeled it social facilitation in 1920.
  • There are two types of social facilitation: co-action effects and audience effects.
  • Subsequent researchers found that performance improved as a result of the presence of others (social facilitation), whilst others found that it was impaired (social inhibition).
  • Whether or not social facilitation occurs depends on the type of task: people tend to experience social facilitation when they are familiar with a task or for well-learned skills. However, social inhibition (decreased performance in the presence of others) occurs for difficult or novel tasks.

Social facilitation is an improvement in the performance of a task in the presence of others (audience, competitor, co-actor) compared to their performance when alone.

History and Origins

Perhaps the first social psychology laboratory experiment was undertaken in this area by Norman Triplett in 1898. In his research on the speed records of cyclists, he noticed that racing against each other rather than against the clock alone increased the cyclists’ speeds.

He attempted to duplicate this under laboratory conditions using children and fishing reels.

There were two conditions: the child alone and children in pairs but working alone. Their task was to wind in a given amount of fishing line, and Triplett reports that many children worked faster in the presence of a partner doing the same task. Triplett’s experiments demonstrate the co-action effect:

Co-action effects: A co-action effect refers to a phenomenon whereby increased task performance comes about by the mere presence of others doing the same task. An example would be running a 100 meter sprint against someone.

The co-action effect may come into operation if you find that you work well in a library in preference to working at home where it is equally quiet (and so on).

Other co-action effect studies include Chen (1937), who observed that worker ants will dig more than three times as much sand per ant when working (non-co-operatively) alongside other ants than when working alone.

Platt, Yaksh, and Darby (1967) found that animals will eat more of their food if there are others of their species present.

Social facilitation occurs not only in the presence of a co-actor but also in the presence of a passive spectator/audience. This is known as the audience effect.

Dashiell (1935) found that the presence of an audience facilitated subjects” multiplication performance by increasing the number of simple multiplications completed.

Auidence effects: An audience effect refers to a type of social facilitation in which an individual’s performance is influenced by the presence of others (an audience), which causes an individual’s dominant response to occur.

Travis (1925) found that well-trained subjects were better at a psychomotor task (pursuit rotor) in front of spectators. However, Pessin (1933) found an opposite audience effect, namely that subjects needed fewer trials at learning a list of nonsense words when on their own than when in front of an audience.

It seems, then, that the extent of social facilitation or inhibition depends upon the nature of the interaction between the task and the performer.

In some cases, the presence of co-actors/audience improved the quality of performance (Dashiell 1935), but in others, it impaired the quality (Pessin, 1933).

Whether or not social facilitation occurs depends on the type of task: people tend to experience social facilitation when they are familiar with a task or for well-learned skills.

However, social inhibition (decreased performance in the presence of others) occurs for difficult or novel tasks.

Social facilitation

Social facilitation is thought to involve three factors:

Distraction Conflict (Barron, 1986) theory of social facilitation suggests that rather than the mere presence of others, it is the conflict between giving attention to a person and giving attention to a task that affects performance.

This attention conflict motivates a person to pay more attention to the task and therefore will increase performance for simple well-learned tasks.

According to Cottrell (1968), it’s not the presence of other people that is important for social facilitation to occur but the apprehension about being evaluated by them.

We know that approval and disapproval are often dependent on others’ evaluations, and so the presence of others triggers an acquired arousal drive based on evaluation anxiety.

We are aroused by audiences because we have learned that they evaluate our performance; they are not merely passive spectators, we believe.

Such performance evaluation apprehension enhances drive/arousal

According to Zajonc, behavior that is either instinctive or very well-learned/ highly practiced is improved, whereas behavior that is novel or complex is impaired.

Zajonc’s (1966) fundamental claim is that “an audience impairs the acquisition of new responses and facilitates the emission of well learned responses”.

His crucial theoretical contribution was that the presence of others enhances the emission of dominant responses.

Zajonc’s explanation is based upon Clark Hull’s theory of motivation which states that a high level of arousal/drive will result in what is now called stress and will produce habitual behaviors (which are often incorrect).

The presence of others adds to arousal and, when combined with the arousal arising from a difficult or unfamiliar task, results in stress and consequent poor performance.

Yerkes Dodson Curve

The extra arousal contributed by the presence of others takes us past our optimum level of arousal and results in the dominant response being something we can do easily, not something which is new or demanding. This is supported by the Yerkes-Dodson theory of optimal arousal.

A dominant response is simply the response that is most likely to occur in the presence of the given array of stimuli. If a task is easy for the person, then the dominant response will be the correct one (i.e., most likely), and so the audience/co-actor helps elicit this. In a difficult task, the dominant response is the incorrect one(s) (i.e., the most likely again), and so the audience/co-actor helps elicit this.

Social Facilitation and Social Loafing

However, there are instances where the presence of others has the opposite effect. That is, sometimes we don’t work as hard in the presence of others as we do when we are alone, especially if our behavior is not under surveillance. This phenomenon is known as social loafing.


Baron, R. S. (1986). Distraction-conflict theory: Progress and problems. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 19, pp. 1-40). Academic Press.

Chen, S. C. (1937). The leaders and followers among the ants in nest-building. Physiological Zoology, 10(4), 437-455.

Cottrell, N. B., Wack, D. L., Sekerak, G. J., & Rittle, R. H. (1968). Social facilitation of dominant responses by the presence of an audience and the mere presence of others. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(3), 245.

Dashiell, J. F. (1935). Experimental studies of the influence of social situations on the behavior of individual human adults.

Pessin, J. (1933). The comparative effects of social and mechanical stimulation on memorizing. The American Journal of Psychology, 45(2), 263-270.

PLATT, J. J., YAKSH, T., & DARBY, C. L. (1967). Social facilitation of eating behavior in armadillos. Psychological Reports, 20(3c), 1136-1136.

Travis, L. E. (1925). The effect of a small audience upon eye-hand coordination. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 20(2), 142.

Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. The American journal of psychology, 9(4), 507-533.

Zajonc, R. B., & Sales, S. M. (1966). Social facilitation of dominant and subordinate responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2 (2), 160-168.

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.