People perform tasks better when others are watching, scientists find

'You might think having people watch you isn't going to help, but it might actually make you perform better,' says researcher

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Friday 20 April 2018 20:45
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Performing in front of an audience may actually be beneficial to performance, according to a new study
Performing in front of an audience may actually be beneficial to performance, according to a new study

Scientists have found people may actually perform tasks better when others are watching, not worse.

A new study has used brain imaging techniques to investigate the neuroscience underpinning people’s ability to undertake tasks in front of crowds.

Professor Vikram Chib, a biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins University, originally set out to find how being watched hinders people’s ability to perform.

Previously, his work has explored why athletes “choke” when participating in sporting events, using brain scans to identify those most likely to do well under pressure.

However, in his latest study he found that having at least some people watching actually helped people perform better than they would if they were alone.

"You might think having people watch you isn't going to help, but it might actually make you perform better," said Profesor Chib.

"An audience can serve as an extra bit of incentive."

In their study, Professor Chib and his colleagues wanted to investigate both how participants responded to the presence of an audience and what happened to their brains in such a situation.

The scientists gathered 20 participants and asked them to play on a games console similar to a Wii or Xbox Kinect.

They were asked to perform a task on the console in front of an audience of two, and again with no one watching.

Participants were on average 5 per cent better at the video game, and sometimes as much as 20 per cent better, when they were performing in front of others.

The study was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

While undertaking this task, the participants had their brain activity monitored with functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

When participants knew they had an audience, a part of their brains known as the prefrontal cortex was activated.

This brain region is involved with a variety of functions including personality, decision making and – significantly – moderating social behaviour and understanding the thoughts and intentions of others.

At the same time, another part of the cortex was activated that is involved with rewards, and together these two signals triggered activity in an area of the brain involved with action and motor skills known as the ventral striatum.

These brain scans validated the scientists’ conclusion that the presence of a small audience increased people’s incentive to perform well.

However, the researchers noted that this effect could be diminished if the stakes – and audience numbers – were higher.

In this study, Professor Chib noted that people with social anxiety tended to perform better in front of others, but said at some point, the size of the audience could increase the size of one's anxiety.

“We still need to figure that out,” he said.

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