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Run Cockroach Run! Uber Cool Psychology Study: Social Facilitation Theory - the Audience Effect (the Zajonc Experiment)

Updated on December 29, 2012

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

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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    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

      I was going to write a hub about this, but you beat me to it. Thank you for sharing.

    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 6 years ago

      Thanks, you've given me more ideas on what I can write. =) You're right, sociology can be really fascinating and thought provoking at times!

    • emichael profile image

      emichael 6 years ago from New Orleans

      I think Dr. Cockroach was an excellent choice ;)

      Yeah, I'll go check out that one. I find this sort of thing fascinating. Sociology was my favorite elective in college.

    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 6 years ago

      Hey emichael!

      This is indeed one of my favorite experiments, and it the first time I actually find cockroaches endearing. It was so hard to find an acceptable picture for this hub though (cockroach wise).

      Thank you so much for dropping by. You might like the Cognitive Dissonance hub too - it is another hub about a common phenomenon that was given a 'name'.


    • emichael profile image

      emichael 6 years ago from New Orleans

      Very interesting. I've seen this theory in action (usually as the one stumbling over his words giving a presentation), but I never knew there were actual studies on it.

      Great hub!