Run Cockroach Run! Uber Cool Psychology Study: Social Facilitation Theory - the Audience Effect (the Zajonc Experiment)
The Social Facilitation Theory
One of my favorite social psychology experiment is the cockroach experiment that Zajonc and his colleagues conducted to develop the theory of social facilitation. Although I personally hate cockroaches, this is one of the cleverest and most entertaining studies that I have heard in psychology - and the social facilitation theory is one of my favorite theories in psychology.
What is the Social Facilitation Theory?
The Social Facilitation Theory is a social psychology theory that suggests that our natural dominant response is amplified in the presence of an audience. What exactly does this mean?
Our dominant response is what we do naturally - for example if you are a good or professional singer, your dominant response is to sing well. When you do something simple such as count to 10, your dominant response is to do it well.
On the other hand, if you have just learnt how to drive, and you are still trying to coordinate all those arm and leg movements, your dominant response is not to drive well. The same goes for doing a hard task, like complex mathematical problems - your dominant response is not to do it well.
In short, what this theory means, is that what there are other people around, you tend to do better at what you are good at, and you tend to do worse for things that you are bad at.
Prof Zajonc and Dr Cockroach
The Social Facilitation Experiment
How did they test this theory of social facilitation?
Zajonc and his colleagues devised a really clever experiment using cockroaches. The independent variables were the kind of tunnels that the cockroaches had to run in - easy tunnels and hard tunnels. The dependent variable was the timing it took for these cockroaches to run from the start to the finish. You might be wondering what kind of easy tunnels mean to cockroaches - well, an easy tunnel was a tunnel that required the cockroaches to run straight from one end to another. A hard tunnel was one in the shape of a cross - which is not easy for cockroaches to maneuver from one end to another.
So these cockroaches were running in the tunnels alone, and with other cockroaches watching them.
The results show that cockroaches who had other cockroaches watching them took longer to run to the end in the hard tunnels, but they ran from start to finish faster in the easy tunnels. Does this illustrate the Social Facilitation theory? Yes!
The Cockroach Experiment and Social Facilitation
How exactly does this illustrate the social facilitation theory?
Remember when we began, we said that the dominant responses of the cockroaches would be amplified in the presence of other cockroaches? Let's examine our findings here.
dominant response for the easy tunnel - easy task - run faster
dominant response for the hard tunnel - hard task - run slower.
therefore when there are other cockroaches watching them (addition of an audience)
result for the easy task - run even faster
result for the hard task - run even slower
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How Do we Apply the Social Facilitation Theory?
What a neat finding. We can see applications of the Social Facilitation theory is several places - especially in driving tests, and even playing of a musical instrument. One of the things that other researchers such as Triplett has found is that cyclists who cycle together cycle faster than when they are alone, whether they are conscious of it or not.
One of the ways that social facilitation can help other is through helping us to be aware of the situational influences on our behavior. If we have to do something like make a presentation, or perform solo, one of the ways that we can perform better is to practice until what we do becomes second nature to us, which means that our dominant response is to do it well, as the task has become easy. Another way to improve performance is to imagine that while you practice, there are other people watching you ie. that you have an audience - this will help to to perform faster and better.
Do you have a favorite psychology experiment? Or you believe in this social facilitation theory? Leave a comment below!
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