On July 16, 1965, in the popular American journal Science (“Science”), an article by Robert Zayonts “Social facilitation” appeared, which marked the beginning of a whole direction of socio-psychological research.
The word “facilitation” in English is found infrequently and almost exclusively in a psychological context – as a derivative of the verb facilitate – to facilitate, help, promote.
Unable or unwilling to find a Russian equivalent, our psychologists once again borrowed the term “tracing paper”. The “Concise Psychological Dictionary” explains this concept as follows: “an increase in the speed or productivity of an individual’s activity due to the actualization in his mind of the image of another person (or group of people) acting as a rival or observer of the actions of this individual.” There is not a word about Zayonets in the dictionary, although it was he who introduced this concept into scientific use and outlined the prospects for studying this phenomenon.
However, one can speak about its priority only with a certain degree of conventionality. This phenomenon itself was recorded at the end of the 20th century. in the experiments of the French physiologist K. Fere, the discoverer of the psychogalvanic reflex. Then it was studied by many researchers, in particular in our country V.M. Bekhterev and N.N. Lange. It has been shown that the presence of an observer significantly affects the performance of almost any activity by a person. Moreover, the influence can be both positive and negative. The latter phenomenon is called social inhibition (suppression). It is clearly illustrated by an interesting experiment carried out in the 1920s. in Berlin at the school of K. Levin. The subjects in the experiment were students – people for the most part low-income, literally malnourished. They were seated at a table full of dishes, and offered to treat themselves to their heart’s content. The only obstacle was the experimenter himself, who also sat down at the table, but did not eat anything, but carefully watched the subject and wrote something down in a notebook. One can imagine that in such a situation, the subjects “did not get a piece down their throats”, and most of them got up from the table hungry.
Forty years later, Robert Zajonc decided to find out what determines the success of the activity in the presence of an observer. His subjects were not people, but animals, and not even mammals or birds, but such primitive creatures as cockroaches. Probably, on this basis, the psychological conclusions of Zayonts could be challenged (it is very difficult to admit the analogy of a cockroach and a person!), If the results obtained were not subsequently reproduced many times in experiments on humans. (In general, the propensity for analogies in Zayonets is very strong: one of his works was even published under the defiant title “Social Psychology of Animals”.)
Together with his colleagues, Heingartner and Herman, Zajonc built a simple brightly lit maze with an observation gallery where cockroaches were placed.
Bright light is an annoying stimulus for cockroaches, and they try to avoid it by rushing through the maze to get to the dark box. It turned out that cockroaches run through the maze faster when they are “observed” by other cockroaches. However, when the maze becomes more complicated, the results are reversed – the presence of their own kind makes it difficult to pass a complex maze. Zajonc offered an elegant explanation for this effect. Firstly, the presence of others increases physiological arousal, and secondly, with increased arousal, easy tasks are performed better, while it interferes with complex ones. In other words, the presence of others helps the implementation of well-learned stable reactions and prevents new ones that have not yet been learned.
But why does the mere presence of others cause physiological arousal? Zajonc argues that the presence of other people (or cockroaches, if the behavior of cockroaches is studied – the difference, in his opinion, is small) increases the complexity of the situation, because living beings are unpredictable and, unlike static elements of the environment, cause greater excitement. In addition, there are the following explanations: 1) the presence of others is distracting, and this causes excitement; 2) if we are talking about people, then we must admit that they are more complex than other animal species, and their excitement is the result of the expected assessment from others.
For all the controversy of the research position of Zaionts, the results obtained by him meet the fundamental scientific criteria – reproducibility and predictability. Today, research, which was initiated by his experience with cockroaches, is being carried out on a broad front – no longer in order to challenge the conclusions of Zayonc (they are reliably confirmed), but to deepen and expand them.