The term social facilitation refers to a psychological theory that people are more successful at completing simple, familiar tasks if they are working within a group or in front of an audience. The theory also states that people are less successful at completing complicated, unfamiliar tasks under the same conditions. This tendency was first noted in the late 1800s by Norman Triplett and confirmed through experimentation. There have been a few subsequent refinements to his theory that attempt to explain the reasons for the observed behavior.
Social facilitation theory attempts to identify the effects of a social environment on a person's task performance. When a person is given a familiar or simple task to complete in social setting, such as working in a group, the presence of others seems to have a positive effect and improves performance. This positive outcome, called the social facilitation effect, also occurs if the person has an audience watching for the whole time or just part of it. The promise of someone stopping in to check on the worker also improves performance.
The theory of social facilitation identifies a change in the behavior when the attempted task is more complicated or unfamiliar. In these instances, the presence of others, such as observers or those working along with the person given the task, actually has a negative effect. The person will actually perform worse with others around than alone.
The behavioral tendencies included in the theory of social facilitation were first observed and studied in the 1890s by a psychological researcher named Norman Triplett. He first noticed the phenomenon among bicycle racers, and tested it by having children perform the simple task of winding thread using a fishing rod and reel. He found that when children worked together, they went much faster than if each completed the task alone. Over the next few decades, it was found that the social facilitation effect occurred regardless of competition, but that it actually harmed performance on complex tasks.
In the 1960s, a researcher named Robert Zaronc tried to explain the differences in performance by proposing that others nearby caused a person to be in a state of arousal which increased the ability to perform familiar actions. He theorized that the aroused state improved performance on simple tasks, but not on complicated ones, because difficult tasks require unfamiliar actions that are harder to complete in the aroused state. In the 1980s, Robert Baron suggested that the differences could be explained by the fact that the presence of others was too much of a distraction during difficult tasks. Currently psychologists believe that a combination of these factors is actually responsible for the observed social facilitation effects.