The first page of Triplett's article.

Norman Triplett was one of the first scientists to ask the question "What happens when individuals join together with other individuals?" Triplett, who was a bicycling enthusiast, noticed that cyclists performed better in races than they did when they were paced by motor-driven cycles or when they were timed riding the course alone. Triplett concocted a host of possible explanations for the improvement, which he tested by arranging for 40 children to play a simple game in pairs or alone. As was the case with the cyclists, the children's times were better when they played the game in pairs. Triplett's study documented social facilitation: the enhancement of performance when another person is present (Allport, 1920; Dashiell, 1930; Travis, 1925).

Coaction and audiences. Social facilitation occurs in both coaction settings and in audience settings. In Triplett's work the children worked on the same task in the same room, but they did not interact with one another. This type of situation is a coaction task. Eating alone in a fast-food restaurant, taking a test in a classroom, riding a bicycle with a friend, or studying in the reading room of the library are everyday instances of coaction. An audience task, in contrast, involves an individual who performs a task in front of a spectator. One of the first scientific demonstrations of social facilitation in the presence of a passive spectator occurred in, of all places, an exercise laboratory. People who worked out lifting weights reached a fairly uniform level of performance, but when a researcher unexpectedly returned to the weight room one night a subject whose performance had been constant for several days improved. The investigator concluded that the presence of a spectator was facilitating (Meumann, 1904).

Researchers, after these promising initial confirmations of social facilitation for both coaction and audience tasks, soon discovered exceptions to the general "working with others enhances performance" effect. Floyd H. Allport's studies of what he called "co-working" or "co-feeling," groups, for example, did not always yield evidence of social facilitation (Allport, 1920, p. 159). He arranged for his subjects to complete tasks twice, once while alone in a small testing cubicle and once with others at a table. To reduce competition he cautioned his subjects not to compare their scores with one another, and he also told them that he himself would not be making comparisons. Allport found a slight but consistent improvement in the coacting condition as compared with the isolation condition. When, for example, subjects wrote down as many words they could in response to words like blue or game, 14 of the 15 subjects generated more associates in the coaction condition. Similarly, when participants crossed out vowels in newspaper articles, performed multiplications, and thought up arguments to disprove points made in passages taken from philosophical works. Allport found people in groups produced more than people working in isolation, but their products were lower in quality. Likewise, other researchers sometimes reported gains in performance through coaction or when an audience was watching, but they also documented performance decrements as well (Burwitz & Newell, 1972; Carment, 1970; Martens & Landers, 1972; Travis, 1928; Weston & English, 1926).

Zajonc's resolution. These contradictory findings puzzled group dynamicists for many years, so much so that interest in social facilitation dwindled in the 1940s and 1950s. Then, in an article published in 1965, Robert B. Zajonc integrated the divergent results by drawing a distinction between dominant and nondominant responses. Zajonc noted that some behaviors are easier to learn and perform than others. These dominant responses are located at the top of the organism's response hierarchy, so they dominate all other potential responses. Behaviors that are part of the organism's behavioral repertoire, but are less likely to be performed, are nondominant responses.

With the distinction between dominant and nondominant responses in mind, Zajonc turned to the other pieces of the puzzle. He pointed out that extensive studies of many organisms had repeatedly demonstrated that increases in arousal, activation, motivation, or drive level enhance the emission of dominant responses while impeding the performance of nondominant responses. He also reexamined prior studies of performance and noted that nearly all of the studies that documented social facilitation studied well-learned or instinctual responses such as lifting weights, bicycling, or eating rapidly. He also noted that most researchers who reported negative effects of coaction or observation were studying novel, complicated, or unpracticed tasks, such as solving difficult math problems or writing poetry.

Putting these facts together, Zajonc concluded the presence of others increases our tendency to perform dominant responses and decreases our tendency to perform nondominant responses. If the dominant response is the correct or most appropriate response in that particular situation, then social facilitation occurs; people will perform better when others are present than when they are alone. If the task calls for nondominant responses, however, then other people interfere with performance. The bulk of the experimental studies of social facilitation fell into place when viewed from the parsimonious perspective suggested by Zajonc.

Excerpt from Group Dynamics, 3rd edition, by Donelson R. Forsyth. In press.