Robert Zajonc, a Polish-born American social psychologist proposed an activation Theory for social facilitation. Sounds tough, but read on. His first theory, in simple words, tried to explain the way our performance at some tasks increases in the presence of others, while the performance at some other tasks decreases.
According to him, the presence of other individuals around you serves as a source of “arousal” and affects performance (in good ways some times and bad ways the other times).
When this happens, he said, humans tend to do well at tasks which they are inherently good at, or tasks which they’ve practised well, or easy tasks which involve very little conscious cognitive effort. While the performance at other complex tasks, which aren’t well-learned is affected negatively, when there are other people watching you.
More interestingly, he also pointed that this change in performance isn’t only seen among humans. An experiment that involved several cockroaches effectively proved this.
In two different cases, a cockroach was put in an easy maze to run around and find an exit. The first case had just the one cockroach running around in the maze. It did fine. But in the second case when there were other cockroaches watching the cockroach who was running in the maze, it ran faster. A clear increase in performance was noted in this easy maze.
Interestingly, when the difficulty of this maze was increased (it was a complex task now), as Robert had predicted, the cockroach’s performance decreased when other cockroaches were watching.
Back in 1939, a first year doctoral student at Berkeley, George Dantzig arrived late for a statistics class one day. On the board, professor Jerzy Neyman, a renowned mathematician, had written two problems, and it wasn’t very clear to George what he had written them were for. As any other student would assume, George assumed them to be homework problems and noted them down.
He went back and started working really hard on those problems. They seemed a little harder than usual to him. Nevertheless, George was determined enough. After a couple of days, when George was satisfied with his solution, he went to his professor and apologized to him for taking so long to finish the homework. Without looking at what he had done, the professor told him to put the work on his table, and he’d see it later. George did exactly that.
Six weeks later, on an unsuspecting Sunday morning, at 8:00 in the morning, George was awakened by a frantic knock on the door. It was professor Neyman. With a pile of papers in his hands, he seemed very excited. It was only then, through professor Neyman, that George came to know what he had done on those papers six weeks back.
Six weeks back, those two problems which George mistook for homework turned out to be two examples of unsolved statistics problems Neyman had written on the board. George had unknowingly noted them as homework, and ended up solving the 2 unsolved statistics problems.
Later the papers on these problems were published. However the second one was published much later, in the year 1950.
Moral: When people are not tied down by prejudice, by putting in good work, they often manage to achieve extraordinary things.