Rudimentary physiological effects of mere observation. Academic Article uri icon


  • Complex social factors can influence physiological activity, behavior, and health, but little is known about how essential components of these factors (e.g., human association, observation) affect human physiology. To begin to address this issue, an experiment was conducted to contrast predictions from social facilitation, distraction/conflict, and physiological reactivity formulations regarding the physiological effects of mere observation. Skin conductance and heart rate were measured surreptitiously from 27 women during a period in which they believe that the experimenter was simply calibrating auditory and physiological recording equipment. Approximately half of the subjects were led to believe that they could be observed by the experimenter during this period, and the remainder were led to believe that they could not be observed. Following baseline recordings, a series of 10 orienting tones were presented. Predictions from the physiological reactivity formulation were supported: (a) no differences in basal levels of somatovisceral activity were found as a function of mere observation; (b) mere observation enhanced the skin conductance response to the initial orienting tone; and (c) these physiological differences were punctate, quickly dissipating and quickly habituating. Hence, mere observation has subtler physiological effects than thought previously. Implications are discussed regarding the possible mechanism underlying the stress-enhancing and stress-buffering effects of human association, and regarding the effects social and contextual factors may have in psychophysiological research. Results from an international survey, based on the responses of 57 authors of articles that have appeared in Psychophysiology since 1983, are reported to inform the latter discussion. Results suggest that, even when social factors in psychophysiological research are minimized or held constant within studies, subtle differences in the social context across studies within and across laboratories may contribute to the appearance that psychophysiological relationships are unreliable.

published proceedings

  • Psychophysiology

author list (cited authors)

  • Cacioppo, J. T., Rourke, P. A., Marshall-Goodell, B. S., Tassinary, L. G., & Baron, R. S.

citation count

  • 50

complete list of authors

  • Cacioppo, JT||Rourke, PA||Marshall-Goodell, BS||Tassinary, LG||Baron, RS

publication date

  • March 1990