Performing with and without an audience

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. … The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing.

– Isaac Asimov (source)

Be it far from me to fall for a behavioural studies paper that’s not yet been replicated, and much farther to do so based on a university press release, but this one caught my attention because it suggests something completely opposite to my experience: “when there’s an audience, people’s performance improves”. Sure enough, four full paras into the piece there’s a qualification:

Vikram Chib, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins … 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. But 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. (emphasis added)

The situation in question involved 20 participants playing a videogame in front of an audience of two and, in a different ‘act’, in front of no audience at all. If a participant played the game better, he/she received a higher reward. Brain activity was monitored at all times using an fMRI machine.

You realise now that the press release’s headline is almost criminally wrong, considering it’s likely been vetted by some scientists if not those who conducted the study itself. It suggests that people’s performance improves in all circumstances; however, a videogame is nothing like writing, for example. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who can write when they’re being watched. This is because writing isn’t a performance art whereas a videogame could be. And when executing a performance, having an audience helps.

According to Chib and the press release, this is the mechanism of action:

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.

While this is interesting, 20 people isn’t too much, the task is too simple and definitely not generalisable, and the audience is too small. Playing a videogame in front of two strangers (presumably) is nothing like playing a videogame in a room chock full of people, or when the stakes are higher. In fact, in real life, you’re almost certainly being judged if there’s an audience watching you as you conduct a task, and your stress levels are going to be far higher than when you’re playing something on your Xbox in front of two people.

A final quibble is more a wondering about the takeaway. The study seems to have focused on a very narrowly defined task while one of its authors – Chib – freely acknowledges its various shortcomings. Why weren’t these known issues addressed in the same paper instead of angling for a follow-up? I suspect future studies will also perform the same experiment multiple times with different kinds of tasks.

But if the audience was a lot bigger, and the stakes higher, the results could have gone the other way. “Here people with social anxiety tended to perform better,” Chib said, “but at some point, the size of the audience could increase the size of one’s anxiety but we still need to figure that out.”

Perhaps this is a case of someone trying to jack up their publication count.

Featured image credit: Skitterphoto/pixabay.

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