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Even cockroaches have performance anxiety


We tackled the issue of fear of judgement in our series on fear:

  • Fear happens to us subconsciously; we can't control when we feel fear in the short run

  • We do not fear being judged; in fact, sometimes we welcome the opportunity to be judged. What we fear is not being good enough when judged

(Find out more in our series on fear, here)


But did you know that the above also applies to.... cockroaches?


Robert Zajonc, Alexander Heingartner, Edward Herman et al conducted a study to compare the speed at which roaches would accomplish different tasks under two conditions.


In the first condition, cockroaches completed some tasks alone.

In the second condition, cockroaches completed the tasks with another cockroach watching
(through a Plexiglas window, if you must know).

Each cockroach (in either condition) ad to complete 2 tasks 

Task 1 - simple: Run down a straight corridor

Task 2 - difficult: Go through a complex maze


And the results?


For task 1: Cockroaches were much faster running down a straight corridor when there was another roach observing them, than if they were doing it alone. 

And for task 2? The exact opposite!


Cockroaches did much worse when they had an audience than if they did it alone. Some completely failed in navigating the maze. 

Look back at our 2 observations about fear at the top.

Fear happens subconsciously. And we do not fear being judged when we know we can do something well. But when we worry about being judged not good enough, this subconscious fear causes us to perform worse than we actually can - and this applies even for roaches.

(This said, even with the knowledge that we have similarities with roaches and share the same fears as they do, I'm pretty sure most of us will still fear cockroaches - the rule that fear is unconscious applies). 

We replicated these results in a study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where undergraduate students were offered the chance to earn a high bonus ($600) or a lower one ($60) by performing one task that called for some cognitive skill (adding numbers) and another one that required only a mechanical skill (tapping a key as fast as possible). We found that as long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. But when we included a task that required even rudimentary cognitive skill, the outcome was the same as in the India study: the offer of a higher bonus led to poorer performance.

If our tests mimic the real world, then higher bonuses may not only cost employers more but also discourage executives from working to the best of their ability.

We later did a variation of the same experiment, at the University of Chicago, to look at a different kind of motivator: public scrutiny. We asked 39 participants to solve anagram puzzles, sometimes privately in a cubicle and sometimes in front of the others. We reasoned that their motivation to do well would be higher in public, and we wanted to see if this would affect their performance. But we found that while the subjects wanted to perform better when they worked in front of others, in fact they did worse.

So it turns out that social pressure has the same effect that money has. It motivates people, especially when the tasks at hand require only effort and no skill. But it can provide stress, too, and at some point that stress overwhelms the motivating influence.

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