After weeks of lockdown, science suggests that significant numbers of those being forced to work in isolation could be finding it progressively harder to maintain their motivation. Part of the problem is the double-edged sword of a human trait described by a psychological theory called Social Facilitation Theory, which explains the well-known tendency for people’s performance to change when being watched by others.
One of my all-time favourite studies examined this phenomenon with cockroaches as the test subjects. It was led by professor Zajonc of Stanford University, and it demonstrated that behaviour modification in social settings is not a uniquely human occurrence. First, he created two different tunnels – one easy and the other much more difficult – for the cockroaches to run through. He then timed how long it took the cockroaches to get from start to finish under two conditions: 1) while being observed by other cockroaches, and 2) when on their own (I’d give him an award just for the creativity of it!).
Amazingly, the results showed that being observed affects cockroaches in the same way as it does human beings! Compared to their performance when on their own, the presence of observers caused them to do better at the easy task (running more quickly through the easy tunnel), but worse when challenged with the task of navigating the difficult tunnel. Similar studies have now found this trait in many other animals as well.
This illustrates the basis of social facilitation theory, which is that our natural dominant response is amplified in the presence of an audience. This term – natural dominant response – refers to anything that we do automatically as a result of instinctive human reactions or practiced behaviours and actions. For example, in the presence of observers or competitors, people are likely to:
- Perform better if they are doing something that they are already good at. For example, athletes put in more effort and are much more likely to achieve a personal best in front of a crowd. Similarly, cyclists are faster riding against each other than against the clock.
- Make errors when undertaking tasks they are not familiar with. For example, individuals taking their driving test are often much more prone to errors in front of the examiner.
The explanation for this change in behaviour is that the presence of others heightens arousal and thus increases our ability to perform habitual or well-learned tasks. However, the same arousal leads to stress and produces social inhibition, reducing performance in areas where we are not confident/competent.
Studies have found that people in groups tend to perform better than those who are alone, and that has significant implications in the current era where huge numbers of people are required to work from home. Quite simply, in areas of competence, we are motivated to work harder when people are watching us. This article explains this phenomenon in greater detail and provides some ideas about how its effect may be reduced.
Read the Article: We Work Harder When We Know Someone’s Watching
The essence of the recommendations in the article is that accountability needs to be maximised. An extremely powerful way of achieving this is to create a forum within which tasks and deliverables can be shared, which leverages a powerful psychological driver: that commitments made public become central motivators of behaviour.
More generally, maintaining an awareness of social facilitation theory can convey benefits at any time, not only during this pandemic. Whenever people are outside their comfort zone, I’d suggest making additional efforts to ensure they feel supported, which can do much to calm their evaluation anxiety.