Social facilitation describes the process in which performance is affected by the presence of others and is studied due to the importance of performance improvement in workplaces, education etc. Within social facilitation are coaction and audience effects. The term ‘audience effect’ is used to explain the effect of a passive presence on performance and was first observed by Dashiell (1930). He looked at the effect of observation on college students completing multiplication problems, and discovered that whilst more problems were finished, the students tended to make more errors, when problem-solving before an audience.
The experimenter observed his participant even in the ‘alone’ condition and this might have impaired results. Studies then focused on the audience size and status. Porter (1939) asked people who stuttered to read aloud to an audience, finding that participants presented with a larger audience were much more affected, and stuttered more than those with a smaller audience. Cottrell et al. (1968) used a blindfolded audience as his experimental condition so that participants could not be observed and found that the audience effects practically disappeared.
The experimenter observed his participant even in the ‘alone’ condition and this might have impaired results. Paulus and Murdock (1971) compared the audience effects shown by student research participants either being observed by an audience of psychology students, or by an audience which contained an ‘expert’. The expert was likely to be able to evaluate the performance/capability of the student and in this condition, results showed stronger audience effects. The experiment did use an unrepresentative sample.
Latanend Harkins (1976) asked participants about their own nervousness as they recited poems before audiences, which varied in size and status. Whilst the participants rated themselves on different experiences, the experimenters found that participants rated themselves more nervous when before a larger or higher status audience. These experiments implied that the ability of the audience to evaluate the participant’s performance was important, that both the status and size of the audience made a great difference to the results.
Others studied audience effect variance with task complexity. Cottrell, Rittle and Wack (1967) found that an audience facilitates the memorisation of simple word lists but more complex ones are learnt more slowly. Zajonc, Heingarter and Herman (1969) studied cockroaches and their behaviour when presented with a four-cockroach audience in two situations. In the first, cockroaches ran down a straight runway into a darkened goal area in order to avoid bright light. Here, the audience improved performance.
In the second situation, the cockroach escape response was made more complex by requiring a 90O turn to achieve the goal. In this situation, audience impaired cockroaches’ performance. Hunt and Hillery’s (1973) human experiment yielded comparable results in complex and simple mazes, both experiments lacked ecological validity. From his experiment, Zajonc summarised that social facilitation depends on task complexity and familiarity, saying that, “An audience impairs the acquisition of new responses and facilitates the emission of well-learned responses”.
Simple, familiar things are done better when observed, but more complex, unfamiliar tasks are done less well when observed due to an instinctive response to another’s presence and increase in arousal. Cottrell (1972) rejected this, suggesting the evaluation apprehension model instead. He said that early in life we through another’s evaluation we receive social rewards and punishments (approval, disapproval etc. ), so the audience triggers arousal based on evaluation apprehension.