What do you do when you're asked to make a speech or give a presentation? Do you freeze or do you thrive in the spotlight? Most people are afraid of speaking in public because they think having an audience will cause them to "mess up," but a new study shows that, if anything, knowing that you're being watched enhances performance.
"According to most studies," says comedian Jerry Seinfeld, "people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death."
"This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."
This is not just the setup of an otherwise brilliant joke, but also a fact, as attested by a poll of over 2,000 people. Most people are, indeed, more afraid of speaking in public than they are of dying.
If you're one of these people, and you find the fear of failing in public paralyzing, you might be glad to know that, scientifically speaking, being in front of an audience is more likely to make you perform better, not worse.
This is the main takeaway of a recent neuroscientific study that examined the brains of people performing tasks in front of an audience and on their own.
The research was led by Vikram Chib, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, and the findings were published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Studying performance while being watched
In the past, Chib and his colleagues studied what goes on in the brain when athletes choke under pressure; they found that a brain area called the ventral striatum controls this effect. This region is responsible for processing incentives and rewards, but also for controlling movement.
Given the results of the previous research, the scientists hypothesized that having a social audience would inhibit performance of a certain skill. So, they set out to explore what happens in the brain under the harmful effects of a social audience.
To do so, Chib and his colleagues paid 20 participants, aged 19–32, to play a video game task; how much they were paid depended on how well they performed.
They carried out the task twice: once while being watched by two other participants, and once without being watched. On both occasions, their brain activity was monitored using functional MRI.
How an audience boosts brain activity
When the participants knew that they were being watched, their brain scans revealed increased activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex — an area associated with perceiving social cues and attributing thoughts and intentions to the minds of other people.
Activity in this area, in turn, boosted reward processing in the brain's ventromedial cortex. Together, these two brain areas set off activity in the brain's ventral striatum, the region that drives action and controls motor skills.
When they were in the presence of an audience, participants performed between 5 and 20 percent better at the video game, compared with playing the video game on their own.
"These findings," conclude the authors, "illustrate how neural processing of social judgments gives rise to the enhanced motivational state that results in social facilitation of incentive-based performance."
Basically, Chib says, having an audience incentivizes your brain to perform better, and the research revealed the brain circuits responsible for this.
"You might think having people watch you isn't going to help, but it might actually make you perform better [...] An audience can serve as an extra bit of incentive."
However, the authors concede that the size of the audience could play a role, and this is something they wish to investigate further.