Does Being Watched Help Performance?

If you ask most professionals to name their biggest fear, public speaking tends to come consistently high.  The fear stems from concerns that we will mess up in front of a large audience.  A recent study from Johns Hopkins University questions this narrative that public exposure inhibits our performance, and instead proposes that it can prod us to greater heights.

They suggest that when we’re being observed, the parts of the brain that are strongly linked with both social awareness and reward invigorate the parts that control our motor skills.  In other words, being observed helps to prime us for success.

“You might think having people watch you isn’t going to help, but it might actually make you perforbiomedical m better,” the authors say. “An audience can serve as an extra bit of incentive.”

Performance under pressure

The study builds on previous work exploring what happens in the brain when we choke under pressure, but the researchers wanted to specifically explore how performance changes when we’re being observed by others.

It’s reasonably well known that being observed triggers activity in the part of the brain associated with thinking about others.  This even occurs when doing an activity for which others cannot judge them.  The researchers wanted to build on this to explore whether being observed might encourage us to work harder to achieve our goal, and what happens in the brain during this.

The researchers conducted an experiment whereby participants were asked to complete a task that had a small monetary reward depending on their success.  Some participants did the task on their own, whilst others did it in front of an audience.  All the time their brains were being monitored by MRI.

It transpired that when people know they’re being watched, the part of the prefrontal cortex linked with social cognition is activated, but also a second part of the cortex that is associated with rewards.  Together, the signals generated then trigger activity in the ventral striatum, which is a part of the brain that powers action and motor skills.

In other words, the presence of an audience appeared to coincide with greater motivation to perform well.  Indeed, this is what transpired in the results, with those who were watched performing 5% better than their peers on average.

It should be said that the researchers admit that their study has limitations, especially around the size of the audience.  In the experiment, volunteers would be observed by just a couple of onlookers, which is a far cry from an auditorium full of people.  They plan to explore the impact various audience sizes has on performance in a future study.