AP Psychology Study Resource: Social Facilitation

AP Psychology Study Resource: Social Facilitation

Social facilitation is the theory that explores how someone’s performance can be improved when others are present.

This theory helps us understand our motivation in front of an audience. We get to say when we’re doing tasks, the more effective and successful we become.

For example, as we’ll find out, cyclists who are competing with others are more likely to perform better than if they’re just racing against the clock.

This also explains how mistakes mean more when people are asked to do unfamiliar tasks in the presence of competitors or an audience. Moreover, this becomes known as social inhibition.

Furthermore, on a driving test with an instructor, an individual gets more prone to errors and being over cautious due to self-doubt and/or nervousness.

Below, we’ll explore how this theory came about. We also learn how it evolved over the years.

The Definition of Social Facilitation

Photo of Women in Business at the White House representing Social Facilitation since they are working together
Image: CC by A-SA 2.0, businessforward, via Flickr

Studies surrounding this theory explore the extent of a person’s behavior. Notwithstanding if the act appears affected by the implied, imagined, or real presence of others.

It occurs when we perform better in a simple task while others get to watch you. However, people less expect for a complex task.

For example, this appears visible once your boss asks you to tidy up the meeting room. This theory suggests that you willfully go an extra mile to ensure tardiness and orderliness.

On the other hand, if you stayed for this task out of hours (when everyone else has left work for the day), the same level of attentiveness happens not to take place.

Yet, if the tasks get more challenging, e.g. decorating the meeting room while people see you, you definitely feel more pressure to do this task making you commit mistakes.

The Origins of Social Facilitation

Military cyclists in pace line as experimented by Norman Triplett on the origin of social facilitation
Image: Public Domain U.S., Airman Nathan Doza, via Wikipedia Commons

Norman Triplett created one of the first experiments into this theory in 1898.

He conducted research on cyclists’ speed records. Notably, he noticed that once the racing happens against each other rather than a timer, their speed increases. To emphasize his findings, he conducted further tests under laboratory conditions.

This involved getting children to use fishing reels.

The two conditions held a child working alone and children working in pairs. The tasks concerns winding up a certain length of fishing line.

Triplett reported that the work gets faster as soon as they partnered with someone else doing the same task.

This demonstrates the co-action effect.

Co-Action Effect

Communication in bulldog ants to represent Co-action effect
Image: CC by 2.0, Sylvain Dubey, via Wikipedia Commons

This phenomenon occurs when someone’s task performance increases. Conclusively, the presence of others doing the same thing affects the mere performance.

For example, relating to this reading material gets easier in a library environment than you do at home, even though the place appears quiet.

Other studies explore the co-action effect through the effort of Chen (1937). When working alongside other ants to dig sand, an ant digs three times as much compared if they do it on their own.

Likewise, Platt, Yaksh, and Darby (1967) discovered that an animal eats more food if there exist other animals (from their same species) there while eating.

Audience Effect

Football Game Players to explain the Audience Effect
Image: CC 0 by Public Domain, KeithJJ, via Pixabay

Social facilitation doesn’t just occur when someone gets co-acting with someone. But, this occurs also when there’s a passive audience/spectator present. Psychologists coin this as the audience effect.

In 1935, Dashiell found that subjects’ multiplication performances increased by the presence of an audience. This happens provided by increasing how many simple multiplications carried out. In 1925, Travis discovered that well-trained subjects perform better at a psychomotor test in front of spectators.

But in 1933, Pessin found the opposite of this. He reveals that subjects required fewer trials to learn a list of gibberish words in front of an audience while they work on their own.

What does this mean?

That social facilitation appears dependent on the nature of the interaction between the performer and task. In some cases, an audience or co-stars help boost the performance quality. As for others, their quality gets impaired.

Thus, according to Cottrell (1968), this theory concerns not all about the presence of people but rather the apprehension of being judged by them. Being aware of others’ evaluations leads to our approval or disapproval.  So, by being in the presence of others we get driven by evaluation anxiety.

Developing the Theory

As well as the aforementioned studies, Robert Zajonc happened also hugely responsible for piecing together the concept of this theory.

In 1956, he carried out studies to try and understand why some performed better or worse when in the presence of others. These experiments define two parts – simple or complex tasks in front of an audience.

His results denoted pretty clear-cut.

When people gain a lot of practice and performing a simple task, they performed better than those who perform more complex tasks. Nonetheless, these people obtain little practice at and some tasks appear unfamiliar.

This spawned the idea of “social inhibition.”

The Activation Theory

In 1956, the generalized drive hypothesis proposed by Zajonc became the backbone of activation theory. Also, this appears why you hear activation theory refers to as the Zajonc theory.

This gets the first theory to address both the decrease and increase in people’s performances in front of others.

Zajonc claimed that an organism’s arousal seems heightened when in the presence of others. This increases how well they perform their well-learned/habitual tasks. In contrast, this heightened awareness becomes an impairment when carrying out unfamiliar/more complex tasks.

He based this theory on Yerkes-Dodson’s Law, which stipulates that when it comes to performance levels these work like an inverse “U” function. This means that for easier tasks, we obtain a higher optimal drive level. For complex tasks, this gets lower.

To expand on this, there appears a number of different activation theories:

Alertness Hypothesis

In this theory, a performer occurs not aware of the actions of competitors or observers. This enables them to perform better as it heightens their alertness.

Monitoring Hypothesis

In this theory, social facilitation doesn’t occur because the performer gets familiar with how their audience/observer responds. This means the performer isn’t able to perform as well as they feel more pressure.

Challenge and Threat Hypothesis

This theory expands on the idea that people are better able to perform simple tasks in front of an audience.  Yet, this turns out less once they perform complex tasks in front of others. Mainly, this comes from the cardiovascular response to the activity.

When doing a simple exercise in front of people, the performer’s cardiovascular response gets normal. Indeed, this aids their performance. Hitherto, on complex tasks, this induces a cardiovascular response similar as to being placed under threat. Certainly,  this negatively impacts the performance.

Why Is It Important to Understand this Theory?

Woman Jumping High for European Artistic Gymnastics Championships
Image: CC by A-SA 4.0, Pierre-Yves Beaudouin, via Wikipedia Commons

By familiarizing yourself with this idea, it helps you gain a new perspective on motivation.


Because we often interpret how well someone performs based on their abilities.

For example, this gets visible when someone does a  given a task and fails to perform it well. Probably, this gets potentially assumed that there comes the unwillingness to put the required effort.

While that could be the case, social facilitation allows us to appreciate that how motivated we are toward a task. This comes dependent on whether others seem to evaluate us and how good we think we become at that particular task.

When we perform something easy and others observe, our motivation arrive high. This means we likely to get more positive feedback. However, when we start to worry about making mistakes, we surely receive negative comments from our spectators.

How can you use this concept effectively?

effective meeting and succesful presentation in the office through social facilitation
Image: CC by 2.0, Nguyen Hung Vu, via Flickr

By assigning tasks that not only match the participants’ skills but will also be observed by others.

For example, Sarah’s teacher has asked her to do a 3-minute presentation on her chosen topic. When speaking in front of a group of people, Sarah is confident. This means that she’s highly motivated to do this task. This gets possible since it denoted relatively straightforward for her.

Nonetheless, Sam is incredibly shy. So while he may benefit from learning to speak in front of others, his motivation levels are low. This comes from the fact that the task appears difficult for him. Therefore, he thinks he’ll perform poorly and get negative comments from his classmates.

Putting It into Practice

Overall, it’s clear that social facilitation enables us to understand how those around us are behaving in different surroundings.

This depends on the level of distractions, the task at hand, and the awareness of evaluation. This appears similar to the level of arousal in the subject and the subjects’ perspective on the task.  Whether it seems easy or difficult for you or me, this can be understood in detail by applying these theories.

Featured Image: CC by 2.0, Split the Kipper, via Flickr

AP Psychology Study Resource: Attribution Theory

AP Psychology Study Resource: Attribution Theory

Why is that person angry?

Is it because something awful has happened to them or because they’re bad-tempered?

Attribution theory explores how we give meaning to our own and others’ behavior. It is concerned with why and how we explain events and behaviors in the way we do.

Essentially, we make these attributions in order to understand the things we experience and these attributions have a huge influence on how we interact with others.

Below, we’ll explore the origins of this theory before moving on to look at the different types of attributions.

The Origins of Attribution Theory

Man Reflecting Origins of Attribution Theory through a Photo
Image: CC by 2.0, Michael Beaton, via Flickr

The theory was originally developed by a well-known psychologist, Fritz Heider.

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1896, his career spanned over 60 years and saw him exploring how people interpret their own behavior and that of others.

Much of this was gathered in his book, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, which was published in 1958.

He believed that we attribute how others behave to our own perceptions and that these perceptions can be determined by long-held beliefs or specific situations.

While it isn’t an overly-complicated concept, it has led to many questions about how people relate to one another and why.

The Definition of Attribution Theory

Discussions on the Definition of Attribution Theory
Image: CC by A-SA 4.0, Thelmadatter, via Wikipedia Commons

In layman’s terms, attribution theory explores the means we use to attribute how others behave. Sometimes, it may be attributed to disposition. We can take an example when someone donates money to charity as this attributes to altruism.

In other cases, someone’s behavior may be attributed to a particular situation. So in the above example, perhaps the person donating the money has done so because they feel pressured by society.

Heider’s belief was that people often gave more attribution to personality than they should, meaning they placed less emphasis on situations. This means that when it comes to behavior, personality as an indicator isn’t as consistent as people may believe.

Through his philosophies, Heider developed certain themes that other psychologist explored in more detail. And there were two key ideas that became influential:

1. Internal Attribution

Whereby someone assigns the action of a behavior to an internal characteristic, rather than an outer factor. So when we are looking to justify the behavior of someone, we’re looking for internal attributions.

It comes in form through personality traits like altruism. In essence, we’re attributing how they are behaving to their motives, personality, or beliefs.

2. External Attribution

This occurs when we assign the cause of someone’s behavior to an event or situation that’s out of their control, rather than to their own internal traits.

When we’re trying to justify our own behavior, we’ll often make external attributions, such as environmental or situational factors.

For example, Jesse’s car breaks down. She suggests that it’s happened because she knows nothing about cars. This comes as a proof for internal attribution. But if she suggests that it’s because her car is old, this is classed as an external attribution.

The Correspondent Interference Theory – Jones & Davies

Proof of Correspondent Interference Theory on a lady getting a bottled water
Image: Public Domain, Shane T. McCoy, via Wikipedia Commons

Jones and Davis (1965) believed that people were particularly focused on intentional behavior, as opposed to unthinking or accidental behavior.

This theory helps us make more sense of how we make an internal attribution to someone’s behavior. They suggest that our tendencies to do this are higher when someone’s motive and behavior corresponds.

For example, when we see someone behaving in an ill-mannered way when they’re an ill-mannered person, this creates a correspondence between the two.

These internal attributions allow us to make assumptions about someone’s future behavior because they give us more information. This theory is what leads to us making these dispositional attributes toward this “intentional” behavior.

Davis used this term to refer to a time when someone suggests a person’s behavior corresponds with or matches their personality.

Correspondent inference methods

Jones and Davis suggest we draw upon 5 different information sources:

  • Choice: This internal factor appears as something freely chosen by someone without being forced by someone else.
  • Accidental or Intentional Behavior: If someone’s behavior appears to be intentional, we’re likely to attribute this to their personality, but if it seems accidental, we’re more likely to suggest an external cause has led to this behavior.
  • Social Desirability: If someone behaves in a non-conforming manner, this often leads to us making internal inferences. For example, if you saw someone in a fine-dining restaurant eating with their fingers, this is non-conforming behavior that’s likely to correspond with the individual’s personality.
  • Hedonistic Relevance: The intention of harm or benefit refers to the specific behavior.
  • Personalism: If someone’s behavior seems to intentionally have an impact on us, we assume this isn’t a cause of the situation we’re in but that it is “personal.”

Kelley’s Covariation Model

Classroom Set-up Proof for Kelley’s Covariation Model
Image: CC by A-SA 3.0, David Shankbone, via Wikipedia Commons

Introduced in 1967, this model is one of the most well-known attribution theories. Kelley developed a logical model that helped us judge whether a specific action should be attributed to an external or internal factor. –

What does covariation mean? It means that the person making the judgment has made multiple observations in different situations and at different times to garner their information.

They are able to identify the covariation of an effect they’ve observed and its causes. Kelley argued that we’re acting like scientists when we try to uncover what causes people to behave in certain ways.

Evidence for the Use of Model

The usage of three different types of evidence makes this assumption relevant to the Attribution Theory:

  • Consensus: To what extent someone else would behave in this same way if they were in a similar situation. For example, Judy drinks wine when she goes out for lunch with her friend. If her friend drinks wine too, this is highly consensus behavior – but if Judy’s the only one drinking wine, it’s low.
  • Distinctiveness: To what extent this person will behave in this way in similar situations. For example, if Judy only drinks wine when she’s out with her friends, this is a highly distinctive behavior. If she drinks wine anywhere and at any time, it’s low.
  • Consistency: To what extent the person acts like this each time a situation occurs. For example, if Judy only drinks wine when she’s out with her friends, this is highly consistent. But if she only drinks on a singular special occasion, it’s low.
Woman Multitasking as an Example of Kelley’s Covariation Model
Image: CC 0 by Public Domain, geralt, via Pixabay

Examples for Model Use

So how does this work? Let’s take a look at an example.

Meet Sally – she’s laughing at a comedian, which means her behavior is laughter.

  1. Consensus – If everyone else who’s watching the comedian is laughing, there’s a high consensus. If Sally’s the only one laughing, it’s low.
  2. Distinctiveness – If Sally only ever laughs at this comedian, there’s high distinctiveness. If Sally laughs at everyone and everything, it’s low.
  3. Consistency – If Sally always laughs when she sees this comedian, there’s high consistency. Lower chances happen when she has seen it before.

So, if everyone’s laughing at this comedian but they’re not laughing at the warm-up act, and if this particular comedian always gets his crowd laughing, then we’re going to make an external attribution. Sally is laughing at this comedian because they’re very amusing.

Alternatively, if Sally is the only one laughing but she laughs at other comedians yet always laughs when she sees this comedian, we’d make an internal attribution. Sally is the type of person who laughs at everything.


This leads to people making their assumptions based on correlation – they’ve seen two things together and assume one’s causing the other.

But what if we haven’t got enough information to make this kind of assumption? What if we don’t know Sally very well and we don’t know how she acts on a day-to-day basis?

According to Kelley, we revert back to past experience, looking for:

  • Multiple necessary causes: The win of a driver in a race founts from the high motivation to do so. We can also say an incredibly adept driver at driving and have trained hard to get to where they are. They must have all of these qualities in order to win.
  • Multiple sufficient causes: The driver’s vehicle fail the test prior to the race because of the modification. We also assume that they’re trying to cheat. Probably, the sponsors modify the car may for a special trick. Likewise, some other people ordered these sponsors. Any of these reasons would suffice.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental Attribution Error through Pacific Partnership among Instructor and Students
Image: Public Domain, Petty Officer 1st Class Elizabeth Merriam, via Wikipedia Commons

This relatively straightforward idea is something that many attribution theorists have observed over time.

Essentially, it means that, when you’re successful, you attribute this success to dispositional factors. You’ve worked hard and you’re talented, which is why you got the promotion.

But when you fail, you relate this to situational factors. Your opposition got lucky or you weren’t feeling well during your interview.

What’s more, we tend to attribute the exact opposite cause when other people are successful. So if your colleague gets a pay rise, it’s because they’ve been brown-nosing. If they miss out, it’s because they’re not good enough for the job.

Applying the Attribution Theory to Everyday Life

These are just some of the many different interpretations of Heider’s attribution theory. You’ll no doubt observe these behaviors and attributions all around you.

For example, when it comes to the fundamental attribution error, one needs to only look at a group of sports fans when they’re watching their team play. If they win, it’s because they’ve been working hard all season. Also, they’ve got the best players around. But if they lose, it’s because the referee is an idiot and completely biased.

AP Psychology Study Resource: Cognitive Learning

Cognitive learning theory can be broken down into two specific branches: social cognitive theory and cognitive behavioral theory.

Both concepts consider the brain to be an information processor and concentrate on how we learn and the specific processes that are going on in the brain when we learn.

What Is Cognitive Learning Theory?

cognitive theory

In psychology, cognitive learning involves studying perception, memory, attention and focus, language, problem-solving and learning. Its focus is thinking.

In 1948, an American Psychologist, Edward Tolman challenged the behaviorist theories that were dominant at the time that stated our thought processes were governed by our environment.

Tolman believed that the brains of people, and animals, worked as information processors much like our present-day computers. He gave us the term cognitive map to describe the process of taking external stimuli and internalizing it to form a mental image in our minds.

He also further developed the theory of latent learning, which is learning that is not displayed at the time of teaching but is visible at a later point.

Tolman’s Work with C.H. Honzik

Tolman and Honzik conducted experiments with rats placed in mazes to prove Tolman’s theory of latent learning. They created three groups with the rats and gave one group a reward (food) when the rats reached the end of the maze.

The rats in the second group were given delayed rewards: for the first 10 days when they reached the end of the maze, they were taken out. From day 11 through to day 17, when they reached the end of the maze, they were given a reward.

The rats in the third group were never given rewards but were taken out of the maze when they reached the end.

Their results found that the second group of rats – those that received delayed rewards – formed a cognitive map of the maze from day 11 through to 17, because they had a goal (reward) to aim for. During days one to ten, they took longer to reach the end of the maze.

This proved that during the second part of the experiment, the rats were actively processing the information they had gathered during the first part of the experiment to get to the end of the maze, and receive the reward, quicker.

The Brain as a Computer

Brain as a Computer

The computer analogy is the term the cognitive psychologists use to compare the human brain to a computer’s processing system. This information processing approach works with the following assumptions.

  • Environmental information is processed in the brain by a series of processing systems. We know these systems as attention and focus, perception, and short-term memory.
  • The brain’s processing systems alter the environmental information.
  • Cognitive learning research is conducted to better understand the processes that drive our cognitive performance.
  • Our brain’s information processing systems work in the same way as a computer’s processing systems. Studying how a computer works will help us to understand how our brains work.

Social Cognitive Theory

Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory is comprised of three variables: behavioral, environmental or extrinsic, and personal or intrinsic factors. Learning occurs when these three factors interact with each other in certain ways.

  • Personal-environmental – our beliefs, ideas and thought processes can be modified by our parents’ influence, stressful environments, and even the climate we live in.
  • Personal-behavioral – our thought processes affect our behavior and our behavior can affect the way we think.
  • Environmental-behavioral – the way we display our behavior can be affected by our environment and our behavior can alter our environment.

The above model emphasizes that if we are to learn we need positive personal traits, a supportive environment and we need to display appropriate behavior. It also suggests that our learning occurs when we compare past experiences with our current situation.

The Basic Concepts of Social Cognitive Theory

These basic concepts apply to adults, infants, children, and adolescents.

    • Observational learning – we learn by watching others and mimicking their behavior.
    • Reproduction – putting people in a comfortable environment, with all the tools and materials they need, will help them to retain, recall, and reproduce behavior.
    • Self-efficacy – the learner takes what he has learned and then improves it by practicing and using the learned the information.
    • Emotional coping mechanisms – people who can manage negative emotions well and deal effectively with stress are in the best position to learn new information.
  • Behavior regulation – learning is affected by a person’s ability to control their own behavior, particularly in a stressful environment.

Cognitive Behavioral Theory

Cognitive Behavioral Theory

Cognitive Behavioral Theory, developed by Aaron Beck, states that a person’s behavior is determined by their thoughts and that their thoughts can be affected by their environment. Beck used the cognitive triad to explain his theory.

Beck termed the Cognitive Triad, also known as the negative triad, to describe the interaction between negative thoughts about the self, the world, and the future. These elements are commonly found in people experiencing depression and are often considered to be automatic responses for sufferers.

Beck believed that the interaction of these three components, alter a person’s cognitive processing to the point that memory, problem-solving, and perception become obsessively negative.

Negative Self-schemas and Cognitive Distortions

According to Beck, negative self-schemas develop when a child is exposed to traumatic experiences such as the death of a parent or sibling, parental neglect, abuse, criticism, and/or overprotection, and bullying or exclusion from peer groups. These experiences lead the brain to form a schema that is negative and pessimistic which is carried into adulthood.

Cognitive distortions develop because of negative self-schemas and Beck believed that people suffering from depression had adopted the following illogical thinking processes.

  • Arbitrary interference – this is the process of drawing conclusions without evidence. For example, a person may think they are worthless if an outdoor event they were going to was cancelled due to bad weather.
  • Selective abstraction – this can be described as a person focusing on one aspect of a situation and not seeing the bigger picture. An example of this would be a person blaming themselves for the failure of a team effort.
  • Magnification or catastrophizing – making a mountain out of a molehill. If a person makes a small mistake in performing a task, they assume they are completely useless at all related tasks.
  • Minimization – a person may be praised for something but shrugs it off as nothing. It’s an inability to see your own skills and talents.
  • Personalization – this is when a person assumes that the negative feelings of others are their fault, despite having no evidence that points to this.

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Cognitive Behavior and Learning

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Cognitive Behavior and Learning

Cognitive learning theories are easy for us to understand. We know that our cognitive abilities make things happen such as advances in science and technology, therefore it makes sense that negative cognitive learning will increase negative situations.

Cognitive theories can be tested with appropriately designed experiments with real human participants although the ethics of these experiments need to be closely monitored. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for depression as it involves challenging negative self-schemas. It has also been effective for helping people with mild to moderate anxiety.

Further study needs to be conducted to determine whether cognitive distortions cause psychopathology or if they are a result of it. Cognitive theories are also limited in what they cover as there is much more to a person than just their thoughts.

Cognitive psychologists are often focused on research to find cures for such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Depression. Other psychologists treat patients directly with cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses on changing the self-schemas that people have developed, often from childhood.

As technology continues to develop and computers become more advanced than we ever imagined, it’s reasonable to assume that our understanding of our brain’s informational processes will advance in tandem.

When you consider how much we have learned since 1948, when Edward Tolman challenged the behaviorists belief that we are the passive receivers of outside information, the future of cognitive learning research looks brighter.

We now know that we use far more than 10% of our brain, but there are still more secrets of cognitive learning and our brains informational processes that we haven’t uncovered yet.