The effect of Zajonc's social inhibition

Sherman Hoover

We recently spoke in Psicoactiva about how exposing ourselves to other people when performing a task can make our performance and results better. This effect is explained through Allport's theory of social facilitation, a widely supported and studied theory. However, sometimes a totally opposite effect can occur in these situations, an effect that carries completely negative consequences: today we are talking about the effect of social inhibition.


  • Starting from the theory of social facilitation
  • But social facilitation was not always fulfilled
  • The generalized impulse hypothesis
  • Yerkes-Dodson law
    • Links of interest

Starting from the theory of social facilitation

For most of the 20th century, a popularly known effect was studied and confirmed: the social facilitation effect. It was Gordon Allport, a popular psychologist who delved deeply into the studies of personality, who shaped and conceptualized this theory that has persisted to this day..

The theory of social facilitation is based on the positive consequences that occur when we perform a task surrounded by other people. This can occur through two effects that appear in different situations:

  • The effect of co-action: This effect occurs when we perform a task, such as doing a sport or playing an instrument that we handle well, accompanied by other people who do the same with us. In these cases, our performance on tasks tends to improve much more than if we do the task alone.
  • The effect of the audience: It is the effect of improvement in the tasks that occurs when we are performing an act in front of other people who observe us. Both this effect, like the previous one, occur because our motivation increases, making us try harder and do a better job..

But social facilitation was not always fulfilled

As early as 1933, the researcher Pessin spoke of an opposite effect. When he studied the performance of several participants who had to memorize a difficult list of words, he realized that if they were observed by an audience the results were much worse.

Different studies supported these data that completely contradicted the effect of social facilitation and trying to study these differences, the psychologist Robert Zajonc designed several experiments to evaluate the performance of people, trying to reach a clear conclusion.

Thus, Zajonc designed simple tasks and other more complex ones and observed how different participants performed them alone and in the company or presence of other people. Their results indicated how, when performing a simple task or a task that did not involve a great effort for the person due to their high training in it, the presence of other people made their performance improve much more than if they did it alone. This was something quite well known in the field of social psychology that did not contribute any novelty..

However, the results also indicated something new: when the tasks were complex or the participants did not have much practice carrying them out, the presence of other people made their performance much worse. Thus was born the theory of social inhibition, a novel change that has since been studied in Social Psychology.

The generalized impulse hypothesis

A few years later, in 1965, Zajonc takes these results and incorporates them into the theory of social facilitation, explaining through the hypothesis of generalized impulse, why in some cases performance improves, while in others it worsens..

According to this researcher, it is the same excitement that causes the presence of a certain audience, which can make performance improve or worsen, since this excitement can make an organism improve its functioning in the face of easy answers or that they already know in advance, but at the same time it manages to turn into anxiety when the tasks are complex, causing us to perform much worse than we could have done..

Yerkes-Dodson law

Zajonc bases this conclusion on the Yerkes-Dodson law. This compares the performance of people based on the anxiety they feel and this performance fluctuates in an inverted "U" shape. When anxiety is moderately high, tasks are done with better results, but if anxiety is too high or too low, performance will be worse.

Therefore, when the anxiety that causes us to be observed by others is not too high, since the task to be carried out is simple, our performance will be better than when we do not have any anxiety. Whereas if the observation anxiety is high, since the task is too complex for us, our performance will be worse..

So, based on this theory, the best thing is that if by chance an audience observes us, we practice and work previously to do our best and not get carried away by the expectations that others generate..

Links of interest

Allport's theory of social facilitation

Social Inhibition.

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