2. Social facilitation and inhibition

Sport, social effects and social psychology has a long common history, that dates back to the turn of the 20th century. At the end of the 19th century the big cycling enthusiast, Norman Triplett, an active cyclist himself, observed that cyclists are faster (on the average) when cycling with mates compared to those cycling alone. To study this phenomenon, he gathered boys from the neighborhood and asked them to turn a fishing reel. Based on his observations with the cyclists he expected that those turning the fishing reel together would be faster than those doing the activity alone. The results were just as he expected, corroborating his hypotheses. Triplett called the observed and experimentally confirmed phenomenon social facilitation (Triplett, 1898).

The above experiment is considered to be the first experiment in social psychology (although it is debated), and consider as the start of social psychology, but it can be seen as a pioneering experiment of sport psychology as well.

The phenomenon has been widely studied ever since (a meta-analysis by Bond and Titus in 1983 analyzed 241 publications), but the results many times failed to corroborate the phenomenon described by Triplett. Moreover, many times the presence of others not only failed to enhance performance in certain tasks, but on the contrary, in the presence of others the performance declined, showing a social inhibition effect beyond social facilitation.

These contradictory findings seemed hard to reconcile for a long while, until Robert Zajonc (1965; Zajonc & Sales, 1966) presented an ingenious explanation to reconcile the inconsistent results. According to his theory, the facilitating or inhibiting effect of the other people present on the person performing the task depend on how difficult, well-practiced, or automatic is the task to be performed.

In case of team sports, like football home pitch is mentioned oftentimes as a factor that can be decisive for the result. However, when analyzing the results on a statistical basis, as had been done by Baumeister and Showers (1986), then accomplishing the task in the presence of others shows ambiguous results like those experienced in the early studies of social facilitation and inhibition. Let us take Major League Baseball (MLB) as an example. It can be seen that home pitch proves to be advantageous statistically during the regular season, but during duels of the playoff home games are rather disadvantageous statistically. The apparent contradiction might be reconciled in the framework of social facilitation and inhibition. It may be possible, that in the regular season, when the end result of the games is usually not crucial, the arousal evoked by the home games has a positive effect on performance, as in this scenario the difficulty of the task and the level of the arousal are in accord. In case of decisive or crucial games of the playoff, however, the arousal evoked by the home games gets too high, having a detrimental effect on performance.

There are several theories explaining the social facilitation and inhibition phenomena, of which probably the most surprising and the simplest is that of Zajonc’s (Zajonc, Heingarter & Herman, 1969). The essence of Zajonc’s theory of the mere presence of others is that no higher cognition, or evaluation is needed for social facilitation or inhibition to occur, but the mere presence of others triggers the phenomenon. In order to prove his theory, Zajonc and his colleagues demonstrated the social facilitation and inhibition phenomenon with cockroaches, which are most likely do not possess higher cognitive functioning. It has to be noted, however, that the fact that the mere presence of others proves to be enough to trigger the social facilition or inhibition effect, that does not mean the for example evaluation apprehension does not play an important role in case of humans.