Jonah Berger of Wharton has written a new book titled, Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior. He was recently interviewed for an article on the Knowledge@Wharton website. In that interview, he discusses how the presence and influence of others sometimes helps us, and on other occasions, can have a detrimental impact. Here's an excerpt from that interview:
There’s this wonderful old study on motivation. This researcher was interested in just the question you were interested in. He looked at a bunch of research and said, “Well, sometimes others seem to be motivating. They lead us to work harder, do better. Sometimes they lead us to get demotivated, do worse. Why is that? What are situations that lead to one versus the other?”
He wanted to figure out a way to test that. He designed this amazing experiment with running, looking at how running was affected by other individuals watching you run. But he didn’t do it with people. He did it with cockroaches. He built this cockroach stadium, where these little cockroaches would run cockroach races — run from one stadium side to the other. But then he could manipulate whether other cockroaches are watching them…. He’s interested in, “Well, how does the mere presence of others affect what we do?”
He had them run one of two mazes. One that was either straight ahead, just really easy, or one where you had to run straight and then make a left turn, really difficult — “Do I go right? Do I go left? What do I do?” What he found is, when the task was easy, when it was well-learned, running straight — something cockroaches know how to do well — having others around helped them do better. They ran faster with others than they did by themselves. But when it was a difficult task, when they had to figure out, “Do I go left or do I go right?” Then it was more complicated. The mere presence of others actually made them do worse.
As you mentioned, parallel parking. If we know how to do things well, if they are easy things we’ve already done a bunch, then having others around makes us do them better. If you’re great at shooting pool, for example, shooting pool with someone else will actually make you better at shooting pool than by yourself.
But if you’re not so good at shooting pool, if it’s something that you’re not used to doing, if it’s difficult for you, then having others around can make you do worse. Parallel parking, for example, maybe some of us are good at it. But most of us tend to be a little bit nervous to begin with. We’re not excellent parallel parkers. Merely having someone else in the car can make it more difficult for us. It makes us more nervous, more anxious. While that anxiety can help us do better when it’s easy for us to do those tasks, they can lead us to do worse when it’s a difficult or complicated task.