Marc Armitage - Thought Crime

A five-year old, a wall, and a 100 year-old theory

A five-year old, a wall, and a 100 year-old theory

a \‘shȯrt-rēd’\ piece

On a recent trip to the local supermarket I spotted what I expect is a sight many of us will also have seen. It involved a girl of about five-years old and a low wall alongside the footpath. Can you guess what it was?

If you guessed that she insisted on climbing onto the wall and balancing along it, you are correct – well done!

She was with an adult who, despite also pushing a pram, managed to help her scramble up on the wall and then kept a hand hovering close by to help with any balance issues. The girl also kept a hand close, though not touching, while gaining her balance and then starting hesitantly to walk along the wall. She was wobbly to say the least and kept looking down to make sure that the reassuring hand was still there.

It is at this point that she noticed me walking towards the pair with shopping bag in hand and we briefly made eye contact – and something happened. Question is, what?

Her reaction to realising someone was watching reminded me of an experiment I and fellow students had to complete in my first year at university. Despite reading history and philosophy, we all had to do a mandatory unit of experimental method and this involved running a psychology-based experiment in small groups.

Our group had to recruit participants for the experiment from students wandering around the university apparently not doing anything (in other words most of them). Using a script, members of the team asked them if they would be prepared to help a group of first year students in an experiment, and if they said yes, they were led to a room and asked to wait their turn to take part.

The experiment

On being called for their turn each was given a brief in the corridor outside a second room. They were asked to enter this room where they would find a table and chair at which they should sit.  On the table would be a simple jigsaw laying face down (it was a twelve-piece wooden child’s jigsaw) which, when they were ready, they should turn over and begin to assemble. Once complete, they should then stand up and leave the room.

The volunteers were asked not to rush or say anything during the experiment but note that there would be someone with a stopwatch in the room who would begin timing the moment the first piece was turned and end when the last piece was in place. Each of the participants duly carried out their task one by one, receiving a voucher to spend in the refectory as a thank you on leaving the room

Thing is, there was one crucial piece of information missing from the brief, at least for 50% of the participants.

Whereas half of those taking part found the room exactly as described – table, chair, jigsaw, timer – the other half of them had a little extra. They found in front of the jigsaw table six non-verbal, expressionless people sat on chairs with their arms folded watching their every move from the moment they entered the room to the moment they left. Participants entering the room were clearly a little taken aback on discovering this but all still sat and completed the jigsaw task.

This experiment was an exercise in social facilitation, in other words an attempt to measure the effect of an audience on completing a basic task. The results of this might surprise you. Take a guess on what such an effect that might be while we play a short piece of music.


I suspect that like most people you guessed that the audience would put the individuals off from their task, as I admit I did at the time of the experiment, but the reverse was actually the case – the participants with the audience performed the task quicker and with fewer mistakes.

This is an example of the Yerkes-Dodson effect, first proposed by the psychologists Robert M Yerkes and John D Dodson in 1908, who noted that although the effect of an audience on performing an established skill could indeed act as a barrier, on basic motor tasks or on newly developing skills the audience actually aids performance.

Despite this effect being known about for some time the world of neuroscience has only recently begun to provide an explanation of how this works. A newly published  paper from John Hopkins University, for example, concludes,

“When participants knew an audience was watching, a part of the prefrontal cortex associated with social cognition, particularly the thoughts and intentions of others, activated along with another part of the cortex associated with reward. Together these signals triggered activity in the ventral striatum, an area of the brain that motivates action and motor skills.”

Science, see. Interestingly, this effect only really works if the observer is silent. 

So, back to our young subject on the wall - what happened next?

On realising she was being watched, our five-year noticeably stood more upright. She waved away the hovering adult hand and, tongue hanging out in concentration, the task of balancing along the wall suddenly became very serious. Despite a few further wobbles, she did not reach out for the helping hand and managed to successfully complete the length of the wall.

And there’s more: by this point I was almost up to the pair of them and I couldn’t hold back another bit of eye contact and a little smile. No words passed between us but I got a five-year old’s knowing smile in return.

If you don’t get the implications of that, I suggest you sit down with a bickie and have a think.


Marc Armitage

photo - the keen eyed amongst you may recognise this photo as I have used it before. That is my mother and I, walking the wall quite some years ago.    


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