I was there. I was in the crowd of 80,000 people shouting “Peacock Peacock Peacock” when the 19 year old paralympian stood at the starting line of the 100m dash in 2012, a race he ultimately claimed gold for.
I have never heard such an extraordinary sound as the wave of screams of the crowd that followed him around the stadium. And for Jonnie Peacock, the wave propelled him harder, faster than he’d ever run before.
BBC interview audio
Peacock and the other athletes that year were helped along by the crowd in a way beyond the support and encouragement of those cheers. Even if the crowd was silent - even if they were made of cardboard - just having another person in the room would have pushed these athletes beyond their usual triumphs. The reason takes us back to the very beginning of social psychology.
From the above facts the bodily presence of another contestant participating simultaneously in the race serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available.
This is social facilitation. And when a researcher named Norman Triplett at the University of Indiana first described it in 1898, he created a brand new discipline: understanding how the social world influences the individual.
So here’s the idea.
Take one guy cycling by himself and he’ll cycle a 2 minute 29 second mile
But put that same guy on the same route with another guy cycling next to him, he’ll cycle a 1 minute 55 second mile. This isn’t a fluke; in Triplett’s original study, almost all his 2,000 plus cyclists’ speeds increased by up to 25% when they rode with a pacer.
Why is this? Well, Triplett had a variety of theories, from eradicating “brain worry” to hypnotic suggestion.
A curious theory, lately advanced, suggests the possibility that the strained attention given to the revolving wheel of the pacing machine in front produces sort of hypnotism and that the accompanying muscular exaltation is the secret of the endurance shown by some long distance riders in paced races.
Triplett was a clever guy, and he knew there was something else going on. He figured that cyclists rode faster because someone else was there. And that someone somehow made the athlete more self-aware, more self-evaluative, more competitive. Better.
So, like any good scientist, he tried again, this time in a context totally unrelated to cycling.
In the 40 seconds the average trial lasted, no shelter from the wind was required, nor was any suction exerted, the only brain worry incident was that of maintaining a sufficiently high rate of speed to defeat the competitors. From the shortness of the time and nature of the case, generally, it is doubtful if any automatic movements could be established. On the other hand, the effort was intensely voluntary.
He did two studies: in the first, he enlisted a roomful of kids. He got them to wind a fishing rod as fast as they could, on their own and with someone else doing the same thing next to them. In the second, he asked people to count as far as they could as fast as they could, again on their own and with someone else next to them.
And the result?
The desire to beat, if it did nothing else, brought them to a sense of what was possible for them. The arousal of their competitive instincts and the idea of a faster movement, perhaps, in the contestant, induced greater concentration of energy.
...which translated into peak performance.
Now, Triplett’s experiments ended up explaining everything in terms of competition, specifically with a person doing the same thing.
But if that was all there was to social facilitation, that would mean that the crowd screaming Jonnie Peacock’s name would have had no effect on his remarkable performance in 2012.
That’s not the case. It wasn’t only Oscar Pistorius and the other paralympians who pushed him on to the finish line. It was people watching in the crowd too.
In experiments using human subjects, skilled performance of pursuit rotor, accuracy in a vigilance task, scores on chain association, vowel cancellation and multiplication tasks, and latency of word associations have all been shown to improve under social conditions.
You know, this doesn’t just affect people
Studies using animal subjects found social increments in eating, drinking, bar pressing, copulating, exploring, nest building and running.
..Or even only mammalian brains.
Researchers have been running cockroaches through mazes for years. They do it to test the ability of the insect to learn routes. It’s one of the classic mad scientist experiments. But what nobody had ever considered was that the cockroaches might have a form of performance anxiety.
So the question that Robert Zajonc posed in 1969 with some of his colleagues at the University of Michigan was this: are cockroaches affected by this seemingly human effect?
To test it, he created two kinds of mazes in boxes. The first, well, it wasn’t really a maze; it was a straight line. The second had dead ends and blind alleys. And both of them had teeny little grandstand seating that was filled with, you guessed it, other cockroaches.
Yup, this time, the bugs running through a maze had a teeny tiny cockroach audience. The effect? In the simple mazes, the cockroaches being watched got faster. But for more complex mazes, the watched cockroaches got slower. Exactly the same result you’d get with humans.
Socially facilitated increments in performance are usually found for behaviours that are either very well learned or instinctive.
So what Zajonc discovered was the more complicated the thing you’re doing - like learning a new language or taking an exam or fixing a formula 1 engine - the slower you - and the cockroaches - are, and the better to do whatever it is you’re trying to do unobserved. After you’ve mastered it, by all means, get an audience. You’ll perform better than you would on your own.
What’s even more remarkable is that cockroaches - or people for that matter - don’t even need to be in the room to have an effect on performance.
In another experiment, Zajonc replaced the cockroach spectators with the smell of other cockroaches. And whaddya know, Eau de Cucaracha sped sped up run times through the simple maze and slowed them down in the complicated one, just as if there were roaches in the grandstand, even though no cockroaches were actually there.
Now, people influencing other people is understandable. Cockroaches influencing other cockroaches is understandable too, if you’re a cockroach. But we live in a world of artificial intelligence and speaking machines...
Hello Siri. Hello Aleks
.. in the future, when we’re accompanied on our runs by a virtual trainer on our smartphones, or our car’s inboard computer is talking to us...
...do these artificial virtual humans induce a social facilitation effect?
Dr Sung J Park at Georgia Institute of Technology tested this, and discovered that yes indeed they do.
For easy tasks, performance in the virtual human condition was better than in the alone condition, and for difficult tasks, performance in the virtual human condition was worse than in the alone condition.
Which means that the designers of these futuristic systems need to consider the social influence of their programmes, and how easy or difficult the tasks are for the people using them.
The spectators at the 2012 Paralympics propelled Jonnie Peacock over the finish line in record time, just as the voice connected to my smartphone compels me to go faster and longer when I’m running.
And so here is, the first theory in the field of social psychology. It, and further studies since, show that - whether you’re a cockroach or an olympic athleteif you want to do something simple it's best to have an audience, but if you want to do something complicated, you should do it on your own. Even if the audience is inhuman at all
This has been the N of Us, presented and produced by me, Aleks Krotoski, with editorial support and readings from Ben Hammersley. It wouldn’t be possible without the support of the British Psychological Society.
For more on the topic of this podcast and the others in the series, visit thenofus.com, where you can read the full text of the articles in this programme, watch videos of the astonishing 100m dash at the 2012 Paralympics and see the cockroach mazes with the teeny tiny cockroach grandstands.