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Cockroach Experiment in Social Psychology - the Social Facilitation Theory : How Do we explain it?

Updated on April 12, 2012

The Social Facilitation Theory is one of my favorite psychology theories. In this hub, I explained it in greater detail. If you aren't entirely familiar with the Social Facilitation Theory, I suggest you read that hub here before this one.

According to the theory of social facilitation, the presence of an audience will affect a person’s performance by enhancing their natural dominant response. (Triplett, 1898; Zajonc, 1965). People normally perform easy tasks well, this naturally response towards a particular task is called a dominant response. According to the theory, the presence of another causes one to perform even better on an easy task.


In this hub, we look at some of the ways expert psychologists have tried to explain the effect of having an audience. There are 4 approaches that look at different kinds of processes to explain this theory. If it sounds confusing, just think of it this way - the way explain a certain phenomenon might differ according to their backgrounds.

For example, what do you have black/blue/green/brown.. eyes? A biologist might attribute it to genes, a geologist might attribute it to the location you live in, a parent might say it is because your grandparents all had the same color eyes, a teenager might say it is because you are wearing colored contact lenses.... so there are many approaches to explaining things. All of these are useful in helping us to understand the social facilitation theory.


1. Drive Processes (Zajonc, 1980)

a. Drive Theory (Zajonc, 1985)

The presences of others (an audience) induces a “drive state” which elevates arousal and readiness. Think of it like the fight or flight activation in our bodies that kicks into action (aroused) when we are faced with a threat. In this case, having others around is like switching on a 'drive switch', like an engine that is ready to work.

Thus easier tasks are performed better in the presence of an audience, but harder tasks are performed worse in front of others - imagine a race car ready to go. It can drive straight very easily, but having to navigate through a complicated track creates a higher chance that something might go wrong with all that extra speed and engine power.


2. Motivational Processes

a. Evaluation apprehension theory (Cottrell, 1972)

According to this approach, humans do not like to embarrass themselves in front of others. Just as we make quick judgements on others (oh he/she is safe, friendly, knowledgeable...), we also fear how others may evaluate us. Thus, this apprehension enhances their performance on well-learned and easy tasks, but becomes a handicap in difficult tasks.

Think of the time you were afraid that you would be evaluated negatively by a teacher, or went for an audition you weren't completely confident about. That nervousness perhaps got the better of you, and you did the easy things really well, but stumbled on the trickier tasks.

b. Self-presentation theory (Goffman, 1959)

This theory only works for easy tasks. It says that when self presentation pressures are high, individuals work even harder to maintain other’s impression of them. Self-presentation is also a basic human instinct - to present ourselves well to others. When we are in situations that stress the importance of good self presentation, we thus are even more motivated to maintain and sustain the positive impression that other people have of us - which allows us to do easier tasks even better.

3. Cognitive Processes

Cognitive process look at the way we think, of the mechanisms behind our thoughts. In this theory, the presence of others require a person to split their attention (Guerin & Innes, 1982) or increase self awareness (Mullen & Baumeister, 1987). This means that easier tasks are performed better, while there is insufficient attention needed to perform hard tasks - so they are performed worse.

One theory in this cognitive processes is the Distraction conflict theory.

a. Distraction- conflict theory

This theory says that due to the divided attention between the people (audience) and the tasks, motivation is increased and easy tasks are performed better. However, for hard tasks, divided attention takes away from the resources that we ought to have channeled to completing it well - resulting in worse performance in harder tasks.


4. Personality Processes

Personality processes look at the different personalities that people might have - which is essentially looking at individual differences, and how one person might be different from another. For example, some people thrive under pressure while others crumble.

a. Social orientation theory

Individual differences in social orientation (apprehension or enthusiasm?) predict social facilitation. This theory proposes that some individuals welcome an audience, or some others might be apprehensive towards others - and this would impact their performance of the different tasks.

It's likely all these


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    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 5 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Charlotte, I'd be a-smilin', too! ;);) I can tell you put much effort into this hub, the research is very evident and thorough!

      Many happy days,



    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 5 years ago

      Dear Laurel,

      You made my day! Thank you so much for your sweet encouraging comment. I am thrilled you like it, as this is one of the hubs I like more and put in a lot of effort to write. =)

      Thank you again! I can't stop smiling to myself. =)

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 5 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Did you get my comment earlier? If not, let me know. Goffman is my personal favorite! The dramaturgical approach is my own, after reading his theories.

      Amazing stuff.

      Thanks for writing such a lovely-and I MEAN that-article. By the way, I was going to follow you when I realized I had all ready-well, I do know quality when I see it!

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 5 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      THIS Hub is amazing, Charlotte and you've certainly got a new follower. I'm an 'educated' sociologist and through your article, I was chomping at the bit looking for Goffman's name!

      And there he was, while I was going to suggest him!

      Anyway, Charlotte, you write beautifully and your articles are very well researched.

      Thanks for such a well done article.