Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Motivation/Social inhibition

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Social Inhibition[edit]

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When you say someone is socially inhibited, this usually means that that individual has a shy nature, tends to be quite quiet in social environments, and will most likely not speak unless directly spoken to. But why are some people like this and not like others who find it easy to control a group conversation or who are comfortable in being quite loud in their opinion. There are many possible reasons for this, for example, they may be afraid of being embarrassed or afraid of being laughed at for what they have to say. Other explanations could be that they never developed the skills to work within a group situation and therefore have a limited idea of how to handle such a situation. There is an endless list of reasons why some people are socially inhibited because everyone has a different story that made them who they are. In this chapter we will talk about some of the main reasons and motivations behind social inhibition and try to discover how to give socially inhibited people a chance to change and become more confident.


It was Floyd Allport (1920) who first used the term social inhibition, while also studying social facilitation. Social facilitation is the opposite of social inhibition. It is the ability of people to perform better when they have an audience, or when they are in a group. In his paper he talks about how it is the presence of other people that is the cause for both social facilitation and inhibition. However, he found a vital difference between the two. Social facilitation could be caused in a relatively simple task like running or eating, however social inhibition takes control during relatively difficult tasks like maths or public speaking (Crisp & Turner, 2007). So from this we can say that either response could be invoked depending on the task complexity. After this initial theory came three main theories to describe social facilitation and inhibition and we will look at all three.

The Drive Theory[edit]

The first is the drive theory that was put forward by Zajonic (1965). He states that the two responses can be attributed to psychological arousal. There are two parts to this theory. The first part says that the mere presence of other people around you will cause psychological arousal. This stems from evolutionary factors which apply to all living beings, which mean that the presence of others either presents danger or a chance to reproduce. We cannot help but have this kind of response, however, perhaps these days there are different reasons behind these reactions, and this causes psychological arousal in us. The second part of this theory is the assumption that this psychological arousal will cause our well-learned response tendencies to become dominant (Hull, 1943), be they to become more confident in what we are doing or to regress and protect ourselves. This second part also makes sense when you consider that some types of arousal will cause us to narrow our field of focus and this in turn restricts our processing capacity (Kahneman, 1973). So if our well learned response becomes dominant and that is the only thing we can focus on then that is what shows to the outside world and becomes our normative response to that particular situation (Crisp & Turner, 2007). The important thing to note about drive theory is that it doesn’t say social facilitation or inhibition occurs whether the task at hand is simple or complex but rather that either one will occur depending on the match between our dominant response and the task requirements. For example, a correct match between these two would be social facilitation going with a task like running. Socially inhibited people often respond incorrectly in that their response to what should be a relatively relaxing time, in a group of friends, is to regress inwardly and remain quiet.

Evaluation Apprehension[edit]

The theory of evaluation apprehension holds with the idea that it is psychological arousal that makes us turn to our well-learned responses. However it does differ from the Drive Theory in that it states that it may not be the mere presence of others that is the trigger of the arousal. This theory instead claims that it is evaluation apprehension which causes the arousal. Evaluation apprehension is of course the concern that people have of being judged by the people around them and the fear that one may look a fool in front of an audience (Crisp & Turner, 2007). This idea of people clearly being worried about what others may think of them was clearly shown in the Asch Experiment:

As is stated in the video, humans by nature want to fit in with the group and are very aware of what the people around them are feeling. This experiment is a great example of how we will sometimes go completely against what we really think in order to avoid seeming ignorant even in front of people we may not even know.

Cottrell and his colleagues (1968) conducted an experiment in an attempt to show their theory of evaluation apprehension. In this experiment, participants were asked to pronounce out loud nonsense words that appeared on a screen every four seconds. The participants were split into two groups; one group had to read the words while in front of a blindfolded audience, while the other groups audience was not blindfolded. Now according to drive theory (Zajonic, 1965), the mere presence of an audience would be enough to evoke psychological arousal and cause the participants to revert to the dominant reaction. However what the evaluation apprehension theory says is that there should be a difference between the groups because one group knows that their audience can see them and judge them and the other group knows that their audience can’t. The results of this experiment supported the evaluation apprehension theory. There was found to be a large difference between the two groups and social facilitation was only found to occur within the group with the non-blindfolded audience. This shows that people need to actually know they are being watched and judged for the effects to be caused instead of just knowing that people are there.

Distraction Conflict[edit]

Evaluation apprehension theory (Cottrell et al, 1968) directly contradicts drive theory's statement of mere presence being the cause of the psychological arousal and in turn social facilitation and inhibition. However evaluation apprehension theory does not explain the social facilitation and inhibition effects seen in animals (Chen, 1937). So one theory accounts for the effects seen in humans and the other can explain the effects in animals but neither can explain both and that is what distraction conflict theory attempts to do. This theory puts forward the idea that neither mere presence nor evaluation apprehension is the cause of the psychological arousal. Instead it states that a conflict that is created between the task at hand and attending to others around you is the cause. The effect of becoming psychologically aroused when trying to attend to multiple things is an effect that is well established in psychology. So this conflict is created from people first worrying about what they are doing and then worrying about the people around them. This in turn causes psychological arousal which leads to social facilitation or inhibition. This theory does have great support because of the fact that it is the only theory so far that can explain the effects seen in both humans and animals (Crisp & Turner, 2007).

Therefore because distraction theory is the only theory that can explain both human and animal effects, should we take it as the one true theory or is there room for all the theories in explaining social facilitation and inhibition? The truth is that there is yet to be any major supporting evidence in favour of distraction conflict theory and so for now it is best to say that the best explanation we can give to the effects seen is that it is sometimes the combination of two of these theories or even all three working together. These theories are not mutually exclusive and it can be said, for now, that each main point of each theory all play a role in some way or another in making people either socially facilitated or inhibited (Crisp & Turner, 2007).

Changing One's Social Inhibition[edit]

Artificial Means[edit]

An extreme lack of social inhibition may be seen as very antisocial, however on the other hand, a high level of inhibition may also create serious personal problems, including an inability to feel or express certain emotions. So everyone has some level of social inhibition, some more than others, but what if we were to take someone who normally has a healthy level of inhibition, and take it away from them? It may be quite difficult to predict their behavior but how might we do this in the first place? Alcohol is of course the most common method of reducing a person’s social inhibition. It has been well proven that alcohol will strip people of their inhibition to varying degrees and this does depend on the person. Other drugs do have a similar effect but none are more readily available then alcohol and none is more responsible for a large percentage of antisocial behavior in our society. One of the most interesting effects of alcohol influencing a person’s inhibition is that sometimes people don’t even need the alcohol in the first place in order to change. The classic "alcohol: without alcohol" experiment shows how some people just need to think they are drinking or maybe just look like they are drinking in order to begin to change. This type of person already wants a chance to change for whatever reason, and a chance to release the feelings inside them but because they are motivated by social norms to act in a certain way, they cannot do this during a normal day, in normal encounters with the people around them. So they think alcohol is the best way to gain that chance for release and sometimes all they need is the illusion of drinking alcohol, which automatically gives them an excuse to start to act differently. There are of course substances, such as stimulants, that can have the opposite effect to alcohol and actually strengthen people’s inhibition. An abuse of these kinds of drugs can lead to heightened anxiety and inhibition and as a result of these effects have the potential to cause great mental issues for the people taking them and can also add to antisocial behavior in society.

Natural Means[edit]

There are more natural and less invasive methods of changing ones inhibition. There are many different methods of doing something like this and it is almost impossible to name them all, so we will just focus on two. The first is to train a person to respond differently to difficult situations. This will not only show them that there is a different way but also start to train them to use the new response as their dominant one instead of the old response. So if both drive theory and evaluation apprehension theory hold true then when this person becomes psychologically aroused their new response will come into play instead of their old one and they will begin to feel more confident in their behaviour. The other method applies to people who are deeply afraid of being judged. It involves slowly beginning to show these people that those around them are not going to judge them in the way they think that they will be judged. If this were to happen they may begin to see that it is ok to speak up and be heard without being so afraid of the judgement of others. These methods are of course not as easy as they sound and it does make it easy to understand why people turn to alcohol instead. As has already been stated these two methods are just two examples of many natural ways of changing a person’s inhibition that can be used. They have been explored further as they are the most understandable and easy to explain.


The list of motivations and reasons people have today to be socially inhibited is still endless, however we may be able to say they all some how stem from at least one of the three theories discussed above. For example, most people might say they are shy because they are afraid of being embarrassed which is of course evaluation apprehension. Some people might say they don’t have the skills to work around other, this may be seen as drive theory because for these individuals their well learned response is to close up around others which is just what they will do when they become psychologically aroused. So although these theories may not be motivations to be socially inhibited it is save to say that the majority of people, who are socially inhibited, are so for some form of personal protection and that is a good motivation and there are of course others. The best way we have to describe these motivations is with these three theories. When it comes to changing a person, unfortunately it is increasingly hard to do so the older a person becomes due to them becoming stuck in their ways and all their responses becoming so deeply ingrained in their personality. However it is possible, it takes time and effort and above all else, the individual must be willing to change.


Allport, F. H. (1920). The Influence of The Group Upon Association and Thought. Journal of Experiment Psychology, 3, 159-182.

Chen, S. C. (1937). Social Modification of The Activity of Ants in Nest-Building. Physiological Zoology, 10, 420-436.

Cottrell, N. B., Wack, D. L., Sekerak, G. J., & Rittle, R. H. (1968). Social Faclitation of Dominant Responses by The Presence of an Audience and The Mere Presence of Others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 245-250.

Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2007). Essential Social Psychology (pp. 106-111). London, UK: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Hull, C. L. (1943). Principles of Behavior: An Introduction to Behavior Therapy. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and Effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Zajonic, R. B. (1965). Social Facilitation. Science, 149, 269-274.