Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that some people freeze up when performing in front of an audience?

My son plays the violin and is expected to perform in a few recitals each year. He practices diligently everyday. When at home, he sails right along, plays beautifully and makes no mistakes whatsoever. But each time he gets in front of an audience – he makes frequent mistakes, sometimes forgetting entire passages of the music! Why would someone, who knows the music so thoroughly, seem to forget how to play when performing in front of others?

A: Your question has to do with a common dynamic related to social influence and task performance – so common, in fact, that it’s no wonder that the number one fear reported most by Americans is public speaking! Whether playing an instrument, taking a classroom test, or performing daily job duties, most people behave differently in front of a group than when alone. While there are dozens of social psychological theories that address this occurrence, I will approach your question by highlighting a few of the more popular explanations.

Several decades ago, research was conducted to determine how to maximize productivity among workers. The theory of Social Facilitation was adopted as one such approach. Early research in social facilitation predicted that the performance of an individual tends to increase when others are present. In response to these findings, the formation of think-tanks and focus/study groups were routinely utilized in organizations and schools across the country, with the mindset that “two-heads-are-better-than-one.”

However, as in your son’s case, we eventually learned that the presence of others does not consistently lead to better performance. In fact, in some cases, the presence of other people can actually have the opposite effect! Social Inhibition applies to situations where one’s performance tends to decrease when others are present. Here, instead of drawing confidence and inspiration from an audience, the individual becomes inhibited in his/her ability to perform with others looking on.

But how can one know if the presence of others will help or hinder performance? Some researchers argue that it has to do with the nature of the task itself. In general terms, if the task is easy and/or familiar – the presence of others is more likely to facilitate performance. However, if the task is complex and/or unfamiliar, the presence of others may inhibit our ability to perform. This may be why your son plays with confidence and skill at home, but freezes up in front of an audience. If he had to play “Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star,” he would very likely ace his performance. But when attempting a complex musical selection, the presence of the audience may trigger personal inhibition and apprehensiveness instead.

The theory of Evaluation Apprehension explains this inhibition by suggesting that when people perform tasks in front of others (on stage, in classrooms, giving speeches, during job-related duties, etc.), they may fear negative evaluations from those present. This fear can stifle self-confidence and result in a decrease in overall performance.

Haven’t we all “been there and done that?” For example, I love to sing and play the piano. And while I can carry a tune – I would not consider myself to be a talented vocalist. As long as I’m by myself, I can sing and play my heart out. But put me on the spot at a party or social gathering and the tables quickly turn. My heart races, my blood-pressure rises, and what is usually a joyful task becomes a source of anxiety and nervousness. If I do manage to force out a couple of notes, my voice tends to shake right along with my confidence!

Naturally, there are individual differences in personality and degrees of self-esteem. Some are naturally outgoing, while others are more introverted. Some have been strengthened by unconditional positive feedback and encouragement from family and friends, while others have endured parental/peer pressure, criticism and ridicule when failing to perform as expected. When taken together, the wide range of social responses combined with personal past experiences and traits can mean the difference between “success” and “failure” in the public performance context.

Remember that social reactions to our efforts have powerful and long-lasting effects on our self-confidence and ability to manage social anxieties. Parents, teachers and employers should be mindful of the social impact they wield upon those in their charge, and should make every effort to supply positive encouragement versus pressure and criticism when seeking to optimize performance on tasks in public settings.