The Trouble With Friendly Faces: Skilled Performance With a Supportive Audience

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In 3 experiments, supportive audiences were associated with unexpected performance decrements (i.e., “choking” under pressure). On a difficult, skill-based task, participants were more likely to fail when observed by supportive audiences than when observed by nonsupportive audiences. When the criterion for success was easy, supportive audiences had no effect. With a difficult criterion, supportive audiences elicited cautious, protective strategies that were associated with poor performance: Speed decreased without improving accuracy. Despite impairments caused by supportive audiences, performers found supportive audiences more helpful and less stressful than neutral or adversarial audiences, and participants believed (wrongly) that they performed better with a supportive audience. Results suggest that people are not aware of debilitating effects of supportive audiences and may opt for emotional comfort rather than objective success.

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