Imagine that you’re taking a test in a large public hall. Obviously, your knowledge and confidence will determine your score, but could the number of people around you have an influence too? According to psychologists Stephen Garcia from the University of Michigan and Avishalom Tor from the University of Haifa, the answer is yes. They have found that our motivation to compete falls as the number of competitors rises, even if the chances of success are the same.
The simple act of comparing yourself against someone else can stoke the fires of competition. When there are just a few competitors around, making such comparisons is easy but they become more difficult when challengers are plentiful. As a result, the presence of extra contenders, far from spurring us on by adding extra challenge, can actually have the opposite effect. Garcia and Avishalom call this the “N-effect” and they demonstrated it through a number of experiments.
First, they showed that US students tended to score more highly in SAT tests in states where there were fewer people on average at each testing venue. For each state, they compared SAT scores in 2005 with the total number of test-takers divided by the number of venues, and adjusted the figures for factors such as education budget, general performance on the SATs and so on. A similar analysis of scores from the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) revealed the same pattern – a greater density of test-takers led to lower average scores.
Obviously, this is a very crude analysis. For a start, crowded testing venues could also be rife with distractions that could lie behind a dip in performance. Garcia and Avishalom knew that they had to come up with better evidence, so they ran an experiment.