People perform better when they are being watched, say scientists, contradicting the belief that we often mess up performances when we have an audience.
When people know they are being observed, parts of the brain associated with social awareness and reward invigorate a part of the brain that controls motor skills, improving their performance at skilled tasks.
The findings, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, could help people become more effective in the workplace and in school.
“You might think having people watch you isn’t going to help, but it might actually make you perform better. An audience can serve as an extra bit of incentive,” said Vikram Chib, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University in the US.
Chib, who has studied what happens in the brain when people choke under pressure, originally launched this project to investigate how performance suffers under social observation.
However, it quickly became clear that in certain situations, having an audience spurred people to do better, the same way it would if money was on the line.
Previous studies have shown that when people are observed, brain activity jumps in areas of the brain known for thinking about others, even if people aren’t doing anything that others could judge.
However, researchers had not tested to what degree, if any, people in front of an audience might work harder in pursuit of a reward, or what happens in the brain during this type of social situation.
Researchers devised an experiment, held at the California Institute of Technology in the US, in which 20 participants performed a task and were paid a small amount of money contingent on how well they did.
The task involved playing video game both in front of an audience of two and with no one watching. The participants’ brain activity was monitored with functional magnetic resonance imaging.
When participants knew an audience was watching, a part of the prefrontal cortex associated with social cognition, particularly the thoughts and intentions of others, activated along with another part of the cortex associated with reward.
Together these signals triggered activity in the ventral striatum, an area of the brain that motivates action and motor skills. In essence, the presence of an audience, at least a small one, increased people’s incentive to perform well, Chib said, and the brain scans validated this by showing the neural mechanism for how it happens.
While people were watching, participants were an average of 5% better at the video game—and as much as 20% better. Only two participants didn’t perform better in front of others. However, if the audience was a lot bigger, and the stakes higher, the results could have gone the other way.