Thursday, 16 January 1986

The Significant Other Phenomenon: Signficant Choking Or Significant Facilitation? (2009)

PSYC101 - Design, Measurement and Data Analysis in Psychology


Incline or decline in golf putting performance was measured across 3 conditions relative to a pre-test to determine the influence of strangers in the audience, significant others in the audience or not having an audience on performers. In the stranger condition, participants performed the worst. In the significant other condition, participants performed best. In the no audience condition, performance of participants was in between that of the stranger and significant other conditions. Also, results indicated that males performed better than females in the golf putting task. Findings suggest that being observed by strangers produces detrimental pressure, while being observed by one’s significant other provides positive emotional support. Findings also suggest that women benefit greater from positive emotional support than men.

David Beckham was an illustrious soccer player in his heyday, boasting a wicked right foot that could deliver inch perfect crosses from the wing and dispatch unstoppable free kicks from outside the penalty area, making him an extremely talented and highly rated soccer player. During his time with Manchester United, he secured 6 Premiership titles. However, with the onset of his injury and his subsequent marriage to Victoria ‘Posh Spice’ Adams, his skills and performance have declined and his player value has plummeted. It is worth noting that Victoria has often been in the stands watching him play, and the media does nothing short of making that obvious. It can then be asked: “does the idea of having a significant other – someone we emotionally attach feelings to – as a spectator have a negative bearing on our sporting performance?”

This is considerable because many sportsmen, and even ordinary people who engage in street soccer games and ‘Sunday League’ matches (semi-professional weekend soccer games), often bring their girl friends and wives down to watch them play for a host of reasons, ranging from the significant other demanding to catch their loved one in action, to wanting to impress the significant other, to getting emotional support or seeking encouragement so as to up one’s performance.

However, research has shown that this might have more negative effects than positive ones. Butler and Baumeister (1998) showed through experiments that participants perform worse off in mental skill-based tasks in the presence of a friendly and supportive audience. It is known that friends and family helps ease emotional distress (Cutrona, 1996) as well as allow the performer to expect that they will continue to feel positively toward the performer after failure (Cohen & McKay, 1984). However, expectation of future interaction with friends and family increases the pressure to look good. A supportive audience can also hold high expectations of the performer as an unusually good outcome is often expected (Tesser, Campbell, & Mclntosh, 1989).

This pressure causes performers to choke, especially skilled performers. Skilled performers often hone their abilities to an automatic level of processing. The conscious processing hypothesis (CPH) puts forth that pressure situations may cause anxious skilled performers to utilize the explicit knowledge and control strategies employed by novice performers, in an attempt to maintain performance. On the other hand, the attentional threshold hypothesis (ATH) puts forth that a part of attentional capacity is occupied by both anxiety-related cognitions and coaching instructions (Gucciardi & Dimmock, 2008). Taken in combination, these two act to reduce the attentional resources available to maintain performance. In trying to please their supportive audience, individuals may consciously focus on executing these skills, which may then negatively affect performance (Baumeister, 1984). An increased self-awareness impairs the execution of skills as the performer may try and ensure certain outcomes, such as accuracy, by undermining some important factors, such as speed, which detrimentally changes his or her style of play.

Supportive others may often offer help – in a way that reduces rather than improves coping with stressful events. Support providers may also misread the situation and choose ineffective means of support (Bolger, Foster, Vinokur & Ng, 1996), thus making the situation more rather than less difficult.

This study addresses the issue of whether performers should be encouraged to make their performance contingent on the presence of a significant other, keeping in mind the possible detrimental effects that the presence of an audience to which the performer is emotionally attached to may bring about. With the opening sports-oriented case in mind, specifically, this study seeks to investigate whether the emotional significance a person attaches to a spectator has any bearing on his or her performance during an athletic task. The results and conclusions of this study may bear implications as to the future direction of support given to or requested by sportsmen, and possibly performers in general.


A total of 150 couples were enrolled from Singapore Management University (SMU), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and National University of Singapore (NUS). Participants from SMU were be recruited via two channels. The study was made available for psychology students to participate in order to attain bonus points for their term (also known as course credits). Secondly, the rest of the student population was invited to participate via email and were given S$10 as compensation. Similarly, participants from NTU and NUS were invited to participate in the survey through placement of advertisements on noticeboards throughout the two campuses, and participants were paid S$10 as compensation. Each participating couple took the pre-test but only one person within the couple, randomly chosen, eventually underwent the treatment condition. One participant was removed from the analysis due to invalid inputs in the manipulation check. As a result, a total of 149 participants were used in our analysis, of which 66 were male and 83 were female. SMU contributed 62 participants, NTU contributed 21 participants and NUS contributed 66 participants.

The experiment had a 2 (Factor 1: male, female) x 3 (Factor 2: Significant Other condition, Stranger condition or No One condition) between-subjects design. This study had two parts – a pre-test and the experiment itself – and each part was conducted on a separate day to control for practice effects.

The venue for this study was each university’s multi-purpose hall. The multi-purpose hall was divided into four areas (see Appendix A). Areas 1 and 2 were created using mobile partitions. Area 3 was the putting range. Area 4 housed the benches for seating.

Area 1 was the researchers’ store which housed all the equipment needed for the experiment and data from the experiment. Only researchers or research assistants involved were allowed to gain access to this section. Participants waited in Area 2 which was furnished with tables and chairs. It was used to distract one half of the couple (with the filler task) while the other took the baseline test. It was also used to fill survey questions after the golfing task was completed. The putting area for the golfing task took place in Area 3. It housed an artificial elevated putting green, at which end consisted of a hole. Area 4 was the spectator benches placed overlooking the putting area. The observer was asked to sit on these benches to await his/her turn. The spectator (marked by the o) sat in line from the start area of the one taking the test (marked by the p) at the moment.

The dependent variable was the performance of participants in the golf putting task. The performance of golf putting was determined by the participant’s average score of 10 golf putts. A golf ball was placed 10m away from the hole and participants were instructed to putt the ball into the hole. The accuracy of each putt was measured by the distance (in centimeters, to one decimal place) of the ball away from the hole. The measurement was taken via a laser distance tracking system similar to those used at track and field meets. Once the measurement was taken, it was prominently communicated to the participant via an electronic scoreboard above the hole. Participants completed a set of 10 putts each. The lower the average score, the more accurate the participant was and the better his/her performance.

The purpose of overtly communicating the distance of each putt to the participant was to make him/her aware that his/her performance could be clearly observed and assessed by both himself/herself and the spectator, if the spectator was present. This made the effect of having an observing spectator more pronounced such that appearing to perform well became important.

The pre-test was conducted in order to compare the relative increase or decline of performance for each participant. The pre-test was conducted in the following manner. Participant couples arrived at the experiment venue and were briefed by the experimenter. They were told that they are participating in a study to investigate whether there is a correlation between the strength of a couple’s relationship and the couple’s performance on an athletic task. Participants then took turns completing the golf putting task, one after the other. While one partner was completing the putting task, the other partner was brought to a separate area of the experiment venue (in which he/she cannot observe his/her partner completing the task) to complete a filler survey (see Appendix B). The results of this survey were not analyzed, and were not relevant to this study.

Participants were then instructed to come back a few days later, under the pretext of verifying the validity of the results obtained that day. During the second session, participants were randomly assigned to one of the three conditions: The ‘Significant Other’ condition, the ‘Stranger’ condition and the ‘No Spectator’ condition.

Significant Other condition.
One half of the participant couple (either male or female, assigned randomly) proceeded to a separate area to complete a filler task while the other participant prepared to commence the putting task. Once the filler task was completed, he/she proceeded to the observation area. Upon his/her arrival, his/her partner was instructed to carry out the putting task. The observation area was positioned directly facing the putting area, such that the observer was in the participant’s line of sight. Once the putting task was completed, the couple was asked to complete a final survey (see Appendix C) and debriefed. In each condition, the final survey administered comprised of questions on demographic information as well as a manipulation check to determine the participant’s awareness of an observer present. The final survey included questions like: “I was conscious of the presence of someone observing me while I was completing the putting task.” Participants had to indicate whether they strongly disagreed, disagreed, agreed, strongly agreed or were neutral about it. This confirmation of their awareness was important because the results would be invalid if any effects were not due to the treatment.

Stranger condition.
One half of the participant couple (either male or female, assigned randomly) proceeded to a separate area to complete a filler task while the other participant completed the putting task. Once the filler task was completed, he/she was then asked to remain seated and wait for his/her partner to finish the putting task. The participant completing the putting task was observed by a confederate, whose gender was randomly assigned (by alternating between a male and a female), seated in the observation area. Once the putting task was completed, the couple was asked to complete the final survey and debriefed.

No spectator condition.
The procedure in this condition is similar to the procedure of the first session. After one participant (either male or female, randomly assigned) completed the putting task, the couple was asked to complete the final survey and debriefed.


Manipulation Check
A one-way ANOVA was conducted to test for significant differences in the manipulation check between participants across conditions. The average score from questions 1, 2 and 3 were used to ascertain the perceived presence of a spectator to the participant in each condition, and participants in each condition reported significantly different degrees of presence created by the spectator or lack thereof, F(2, 148) = 178.993, p < .001, η = .843. Participants in the Stranger condition indicated the highest degree of being watched (M = 4.07, SD = .314), followed by participants in the Significant Other condition (M = 3.17, SD = .636) and then the No One condition (M = 2.29, SD = .391). In the case of the Significant Other condition, participants generally did not agree with the proposition that they could have performed better if a stranger was observing them instead (M = 2.14, SD = 1.088). The items used in our manipulation check have adequate reliability (α = .725).

A one-way ANOVA was first used to test for differences in performance between the Significant Other condition, Stranger condition and No One condition. Performance differed significantly across the three conditions, F(2, 146) = 6.362, p = .002, η = .283. The results were next run through a 2 (Factor 1: male, female) x 3 (Factor 2: couple spectator, stranger spectator or no spectator condition) between-subjects ANCOVA. There was a significant main effect of gender, F(1, 148) = 25.194, p < .001, η = .109. In terms of the comparison between mean differences of the pre-test and post-test consisting of average distance from the hole over ten putts, the results showed a difference in performance between males (M = 350.7) and females (M = 378.4), where the smaller the mean score, the better the accuracy. Males tended to perform better than females (see Table 1). There was also a main effect of condition, F(2, 148) = 307.969, p < .001, η = .255, where the Significant Other condition (M = 334.9), the No One condition (M = 357.0) and the Stranger condition (M = 407.3) differed significantly. Participants in the Significant Other condition performed better than those in the other two conditions, while participants in the No One condition performed better than those in the Stranger condition. Lastly, there was an interaction effect between gender and condition, F(2, 148) = 33749.626, p < .001, η = .075. Males in the No One condition (M = 345.0) performed better than females in the No One condition (M = 369.3). Males in the Stranger condition (M = 379.3) also performed better than females in the Stranger condition (M = 419.3). However, when it came to the Significant Other condition, females (M = 339.3) performed equally well compared to males (M = 339.3). Wolf (1986) defines a Cohen’s d of between .25 to .49 as an educationally significant effect size, and a Cohen’s d of .50 and above as a practically significant effect size. Further post-hoc analysis of the interaction showed that there was an educationally significant difference in mean scores between the Significant Other condition and No One condition (MD = 22.1, Cohen’s d = .31), and the Stranger Condition and No One condition (MD = 50.3, Cohen’s d = .45). The greater mean difference between the Significant Other condition and Stranger condition signaled practical significance (MD = 72.4, Cohen’s d = .68).


The results of this study provide evidence that being in the presence of an audience one is significantly attached to actually enhances performance more than being in the presence of spectators that have no emotional relation to the performer. Interestingly, being in the presence of an audience that consists of strangers is more detrimental to performance than not being observed by any spectators at all. The results of this study hence appear to offer support against our hypothesis, but shed light on the nature of social support.

A possible reason for the results of the findings of this study is suggested by research from Cutrona (1996) asserting that friends and family helps ease emotional distress, as well as research from Cohen and McKay (1984) stipulating that the performer can expect that the audience will continue to feel positively toward the performer after failure. These effects may have a stronger positive bearing on one’s performance than the attentional-resource sapping properties of CPH and ATH (Gucciardi & Dimmock, 2008) and the increased pressure to look good (Tesser, Campbell & McIntosh, 1989).

The reduced performance from having an audience composed of strangers as opposed to not having spectators at all suggests the negative aspect of social facilitation at work, whereby engaging in a relatively new task in the presence of others makes the increased arousal detrimental to performance (Zajonc, 1965).

The results of the study also suggest that males are better performers at the golf putting task than females. If the direction of the task is anything to go by, it might be inferred that men are more adept at performing physical tasks that require a certain degree of finesse. However, this study does not provide empirical evidence to support such a claim.

An insight on this can be attained, though, when we look at the interaction effect between gender and the treatment condition. While men performed better than women in both the Stranger and No One condition, men performed most significantly better than women when in the presence of a stranger. This indicates that women experience anxiety from being observed by a stranger more strongly than men do. However, when in the Significant Other condition, women received a boost in motivation and perceived support such that they performed just as well as men when in the presence of their significant others. This could be due to women being either socialised or predisposed to perceive such support to be more beneficial, and evidence for the increased effect on performance due to emotional social support for women can be found in research by Kendler, Myers and Prescott (2005). In their study, women who saw themselves as more loved, cared for and objectively well-integrated in positive relationships, such as friends, family and spouses, were more immune to later episodes of major depression, while among men no such effect was found. The study indicates that emotional social support has a greater bearing on women than on men, which appears to be consistent with our interaction effect.

The present findings clarify that social support from friends and family does indeed provide a degree of boost to performance (be it from pressure or motivation), and will take precedence over negative social facilitation in performing a relatively unfamiliar task if an emotionally-significant person in relation to the performer is present in the audience. The original implication that this study was geared towards should be modified such that we understand the benefits of having friends and family present so that performance is actually enhanced, and that any failures and shortcomings are healthily cushioned for the performer.

An important limitation to note is that the study only employs students from NUS, NTU and SMU and may not be representative of the population. The personality of subjects, which dictates their choice of studies to participate in, can have a bearing on the experiment (Saunders, Fisher, Hewitt & Clayton, 1985). In this case, university students (who are furthermore attached with partners) who choose to participate in a golf study may bring with them characteristics that may have an unforeseen effect on the experiment, such as an already predisposed inclination or liking towards golf. Another consideration to make is that while we intend for the significant other to represent an audience that the performer is emotionally attached to, our discussion generalizes the effect of such an audience to that of a supportive audience that could also be composed of friends and family, which may be actually different either or both in terms of the type of emotional attachment as well as audience size (i.e., one girlfriend could be different from a set of parents and siblings, even though the performer is emotionally attached to both).

While it is vital to recognize the presence of such limitations, it is also important to consider the practical implications of the insights of this study and make headway for future research, perhaps by exploring the effect of immediate family support or extending the study to non-university persons. More research in this field of study will achieve further insight into enhancing athletic performance particularly under sport psychology, for example by enabling an athlete to improve his performance merely by having the belief that someone he loves is present in a huge crowd of spectators and creating positive social support.

At the risk of committing a somewhat far stretch, the psychology of religion is another interesting province of psychology that may benefit from this study. If it is possible to isolate the effect of support such that one can actually enhance performance as long as one perceives that he/she is getting positive support, it then implicatively follows that a strong belief in God can provide substantial supportive strength to the performer. LaMothe (1999) broached this concept indirectly and briefly when considering faith as a facilitator of spontaneity, awe and freedom. Another interesting research also found that the strength of one’s liking (and perhaps emotional attachment) towards a fictional character can elevate the presence of that fictional character to reality and actually have an effect on one’s social facilitation paradigm (Gardner & Knowles, 2008). These can possibly extend our research further to that of the nature and perception of emotional and social support.

Future Directions
It will be important to replicate this study across different age groups, populations and athletic tasks in order to establish the generalizability of the findings. In particular, future replications of this study should seek to address the limitations described earlier in this paper.

In addition, future research can explore the effects of other social relationships on athletic performance. This is essentially assessing the grey area along the continuum defined by the significant other-stranger spectrum and should be explored for variations in influence to performers. In doing so, we may understand better the mechanism of motivating performers to do better, such as by identifying other confounding variables that may accompany social support.


Baumeister, R. F. (1984). Choking under pressure: Self-consciousness and paradoxical effects of incentives on skillful performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 610-620.

Bolger, N., Foster, M., Vinokur, A. D., & Ng, R. (1996). Close relationships and adjustment to a life crisis: The case of breast cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 283-224.

Butler, J. L., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). The trouble with friendly faces: Skilled performance with a supportive audience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1213-1230.

Cutrona, C. E. (1996). Social support in couples. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cohen, S., & McKay, G. (1984). Social support, stress, and the buffering hypothesis: A theoretical analysis. Handbook of Psychology and Health, 4, 253-267.

Gardner, W., & Knowles, M. (2008). Love makes you real: Favorite television characters are perceived as 'real' in a social facilitation paradigm. Social Cognition, 26(2), 156-168.

Gucciardi, D. F., & Dimmock, J. A. (2008). Choking under pressure in sensorimotor skills: Conscious processing or depleted attentional resources? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 45-59.

Kendler, K. S., Myers, J., & Prescott, C. A. (2005). Sex differences in the relationship between social support and risk for major depression: A longitudinal study of opposite-sex twin pairs. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162, 250-256.

LaMothe, R. (1999). Faith as a vital concern in human development: Structuring subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 27(3), 230-240.

Saunders, D. M., Fisher, W. A., Hewitt, E. C., & Clayton, J. P. (1985). A Method For Empirically Assessing Volunteer Selection Effects: Recruitment Procedures and Responses to Erotica. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 1703-1712.

Tesser, A., Campbell, C. J., & Mclntosh, W. D. (1989). Self-evaluation maintenance and the mediational role of emotion: The perception of friends and strangers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 442-456.

Wolf, F. M. (1986). Meta-analysis: Quantitative Methods for Research Synthesis. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149, 269-274.

Appendix A

Layout of multi-purpose hall

Appendix B

Final Survey

You are required to respond to the following statements on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Circle the number that corresponds to the extent to which you agree/disagree with the statement. If your partner was not the one observing you, please ignore statement 4.

  1. I was conscious of the presence of someone observing me while I was completing the putting task.

    Strongly Disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly Agree
    1 2 3 4 5
  2. I felt additional pressure to do well on the putting task because someone was watching me.

    Strongly Disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly Agree
    1 2 3 4 5

  3. The presence of someone in the observation area was distracting.

    Strongly Disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly Agree
    1 2 3 4 5

  4. I could have done better on the putting task if someone else was observing me instead of my partner.

    Strongly Disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly Agree
    1 2 3 4 5

Age: ______

Gender: Male/Female

Ethnicity (please indicate one): Chinese/Malay/Indian/Other: _________

Nationality: _____________________

Any prior golfing experience: Yes (number of years/months: _____________) / No

Table 1

Figure 1

Male and female mean golf putting scores in the No One condition, the Stranger condition and the Significant Other condition.

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