Got Stage Fright? Having An Audience Can Actually Make You Do Better, According To Study

Knowing we're being watched is a powerful incentive that motivates us in the same way that money would do.

Audience in a ceremony hall.
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Knowing we're being watched is a powerful incentive that motivates us in the same way that money would do.

Contrary to popular expectations, having all eyes on you can actually give you an unexpected advantage. It turns out that knowing you’re being watched and assessed can actually make your brain perform better, shows a new study.

People who shy away from public speaking or delivering presentations in front of a group of peers are missing out on something called “social facilitation,” which actually improves performance by stimulating certain areas of the brain.

This phenomenon essentially boosts the parts of the brain that are wired to respond to social awareness and reward, giving us the tools to shine brighter when the prospect of gain is in the cards.

In others words, we do better when we’re being observed by others if we’re aware that we can get something out of it. This can be anything from social validation, the respect and admiration of others, or even the satisfaction of showing off our skills.

The research, conducted by neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Maryland, initially started out in the opposite direction.

Lead author Vikram Chib, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at JHU, originally wanted to see how much of a hindrance social anxiety can be.

Chib was interested to find out what goes on inside the brain during stage fright and concocted an experiment to see how this type of social situation can affect performance.

To his surprise, the results revealed that the thought of impressing others actually motivated people to do better, in the same way financial gain would.

“An audience can serve as an extra bit of incentive,” Chib pointed out in a JHU press release.

In his experiment, 20 participants were asked to perform a task both by themselves and in front of two other people. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Chib’s team monitored what happened in their brains in both situations.

The task consisted of playing a video game similar to Wii or Xbox Kinect, for which the study participants were rewarded a small amount of money depending on how good they performed, JHU notes.

“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,” states the news release.

These two signals then boosted action and motor skills by stimulating the part of the brain that regulates them, called the ventral striatum.

At the end of the experiment, the team uncovered that having an audience improved performance by an average of 5 percent. The most motivated of the participants, who really wanted to show off their video game skills, actually performed better by as much as 20 percent.

Of the 20 people enrolled in the study, only two people were inhibited by social anxiety and actually performed better when they were alone, notes JHU.

Given that the audience in the experiment only consisted of two people, Chib is now interested to raise the stakes and see what happens in front of a larger crowd.

“Here, people with social anxiety tended to perform better, but at some point, the size of the audience could increase the size of one’s anxiety. We still need to figure that out,” he said.