Oratory competitions, extempore speeches or voicing your opinion in public gatherings are beyond comfort zones for an average individual. We are stunned at 7- and 8-year old’s exhibiting excellent dancing/acting/singing performances in front of thousands of people live on stage. Just try putting yourself in that position and you would almost faint! Most of us turn down invitations to give our feedback to an audience or hesitate to make an office presentation even when the topic of interest is our forte. That’s because, thinking about a huge crowd or audience make us go weak on our knees as we doubt our own abilities.
A new study published in a reputed journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience shows that having an audience in front of you increases your performance abilities greatly. This is just the opposite of what has been assumed until now regarding public speeches. The same research team analyzed what happens in the brain when athletes choke under pressure and found that one area of the brain called the ventral striatum controls this effect. This region of the brain is responsible for processing incentives and rewards as well as for controlling movements. With these results, the research group came to a theoretical conclusion that an audience group would retard performance. To confirm this, the group analyzed what happens in the brain when it is subjected to a huge audience group. For this, the research group paid 20 participants (aged between 19 and 32 years) to play a video game task and their pay was decided based on their performance. The task was carried out twice-once in the presence of two other participants and once without anyone watching the participants. The participants’ brain activities were monitored using functional MRI.
When the participants were aware that they were watched, their brain showed increased activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that takes in social signals/clues and attributes thoughts and intentions to the minds of other people. Any major activity in this area of the brain increased reward processing in the brain’s ventromedial cortex. Both these areas of the brain together triggered the brain’s ventral striatum, the region that induces action and controls motor skills. Awareness that one is being watched causes parts of the brain linked with social awareness and rewards to trigger the part of the brain that controls motor skills thereby leading to improved performance outputs of the given task at hand.
Results showed that the participating group performed 5-20% better in front of an audience compared to playing by themselves without any audience. While we assume that people watching over us decreases our performance outputs, it actually improves our performance! This might make school children and working professionals to perform much more effectively! The audience serve as an incentive rather! But again, the positive output might be due to a small set of audience (2 in this case) and because social anxiety brings out better performance in people. The size of the audience (maybe 50 or more people) could inversely increase social anxiety and decrease performance too We can figure out the effect of audience size only if there is another study dedicated for this purpose. Social anxiety is universally present and there are simple solutions available at www.firsteatright.com to overcome it.
Next time, when you are assigned to present something to your manager or speak to a group of people, do it with pleasure and strength-you are sure to perform better in front of these people! Even if the audience size is going to be much bigger, do it with ease assuming that each person in the audience is interacting personally with you and there is nobody between you and the person in the audience.
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Dietitian & Nutritionist Dr. Nafeesa Imteyaz.