This Who Is Robert Zajonc Robert Zajonc

This lesson discusses the noted social psychologist Robert Zajonc, focusing on his theory of social facilitation, which examines why people perform tasks differently with an audience.

Who Is Robert Zajonc

Robert Zajonc was a noted social psychologist who came up with a theory known as social facilitation. But before we talk about his theories, let’s talk a little bit about Zajonc’s biography. Robert Zajonc was a pioneer in the field of social psychology and spent the majority of his long and successful career studying social behavior and how things like cognition and behavior are related.Zajonc was born in Poland and spent much of his childhood in Poland and France during World War II. He eventually immigrated to the United States, where he received his doctorate in psychology from the University of Michigan – where he would go on to serve as a faculty member for more than three decades. In 1994, he transitioned to Stanford University, where he finished his career.

Zajonc published hundreds of scientific articles and is credited with transforming the field of social psychology. While Zajonc has many notable works, and his research spans a number of psychological areas, let’s focus on his theory of social facilitation.

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What Is Social Facilitation?

Do you notice that you perform tasks differently when you’re in front of other people? Social facilitation is a social psychological theory that deals with the ways in which people perform tasks differently when they’re in front of other people than when they’re alone. But there’s a more specific relationship going on here. When people perform simple or very familiar tasks, they tend to do it better in front of others than when alone.

But when people perform more complex or less familiar tasks, they tend to perform worse in front of others than when alone.So, for example, let’s say you’re reciting a poem you’ve known for a really long time. Chances are, reciting it in front of your friends will improve your performance. But, if you’re trying to explain a complicated mathematical theory you’ve just learned for the first time, trying to do it in front of people will likely make it more difficult.

Why Does Social Facilitation Occur?

When he was first devising this theory, Zajonc conducted a famous experiment with cockroaches. (Yes, you read that right!) The experimenters designed a couple of different mazes to test whether having an audience (yup, of other cockroaches!) would affect how quickly the roaches ran through the mazes.

One was a simple maze, and the other was more complicated.During some runs, cockroaches ran in pairs with another cockroach and had an audience of other cockroaches. During other runs, cockroaches ran alone and without other cockroaches. The experimenters found that cockroaches completed the easy maze more quickly when they had an audience and a pair, but they completed the complicated maze more slowly when they had a pair and an audience.

Interestingly, Zajonc found similar results in humans. This led to his theory of social facilitation.So what explains why we perform differently under different circumstances? Let’s go into a bit more detail. There are a few specific hypotheses or principles associated with social facilitation. Think of the following statements as components under the umbrella of social facilitation theory.First, let’s talk about activation theory. Zajonc argued that the presence of others could excite us, stimulating us to do things better.

This is based on the idea that humans generally have a greater drive for tasks that are easy for us. So, when other people are watching us, and this excites us, we have a higher drive to do better at these tasks. But, on the flip side, humans generally have a lower drive for tasks that are more complex.

So, the presence of others when we’re doing complex tasks will tend to lower our drive for those tasks, making us perform worse. Think of it this way to remember: the presence of others when you’re doing something you’re good at activates you to do better.Next, Zajonc proposed the alertness hypothesis. Basically, this states that the presence of others makes us more alert and aware. Because we’re more alert, we pay better attention and thus perform better.

We might be more aware when we’re about to make a mistake, for example. Also, being unsure of how an audience might react makes us more alert.The next one is known as the monitoring hypothesis, and you can think of this as the reverse of the alertness hypothesis. This principle states that if you’re familiar with the audience or with the setting where you’re performing a task, your excitement or nervousness will not increase because you already know what’s going to happen.

Lesson Summary

Robert Zajonc was a Polish-born psychologist and a pioneer in the field of social psychology. He completed his doctorate in psychology at the University of Michigan and became famous for his theory of social facilitation.Social facilitation is a theory that sets out to explain the relationship between the performance of tasks and the presence of other people while performing these tasks. Zajonc and his colleagues found that people tend to perform simple, familiar tasks better when in front of an audience. But researchers found that people tend to perform poorly on more complex tasks in front of an audience.Zajonc came up with three hypotheses to explain social facilitation:

  1. Activation hypothesis: states that the presence of others stimulates us to do things better
  2. Alertness hypothesis: states that the presence of others makes us more alert and aware
  3. Monitoring hypothesis: basically the reverse of alertness hypothesis; suggests that we do better in front of an audience we know since we’re less likely to be surprised

So, next time you’re nervous in front of an audience, think about Zajonc!


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