Is there a term for a person performing worse at something because they are being watched?

For example, a person makes more mistakes typing when someone is watching over their shoulder?

Attempts to answer question:

I've considered the Hawthorne effect and observer effect as an options, but they seem to relate to specific experimental, information technology-related, or physical (as in physics) situations rather than daily life.

I don't think stage-fright applies to the example, because the decreased performance is not driven by anxiety.

Edit: I've seen people very at ease in a one-on-one situation still make more frequent typos when I watched them and vice-versa. Neither they nor I were anxious.

Idioms, single-word answers, and short phrases are all acceptable answers.

  • 1
    "I don't think stage-fright applies, because the decrease performance in not driven by anxiety." Are you sure about that? Because, every time I get stage-fright, the decrease in performance is due to anxiety. They don't call anxiety disorder for nothing serious. Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 21:37
  • I've updated the question to attempt to clarify how anxiety, anxiety disorders, performance anxiety etc. is not the answer I seek.
    – Minnow
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 0:48
  • 2
    The anxiety may be subconscious, but this is almost certainly a case where being observed makes you try harder to do something well, and that ends up making you do worse.
    – jxh
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 1:03
  • Perhaps you're right. Or is it that the person is simply a distraction?
    – Minnow
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 1:38
  • It's possible a person could have negative feedback of tilt that causes performance loss vs. anxiety. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tilt_%28poker%29
    – Neil
    Commented Apr 6, 2015 at 1:59

4 Answers 4


There is the term choking in psychology. It is performing worse under pressure or if you are expected to perform well. It is also mentioned that, if you are being watched when you are performing a task, it means that performing well in this task is important. Thus, people perform worse.

The term choking is usually used in sports but you can choke in social interactions or anywhere.

Below is an explanation of choking and an example from the book "The Curse of the Self : Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life" By Mark R. Leary Professor of Psychology Duke University (2004).

enter image description here enter image description here

Social loafing is a related term also. It is not exactly about being watched but you perform less when you are in a group or if there are people around.

In the social psychology of groups, social loafing is the phenomenon of people exerting less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work alone.


  • I was going to downvote this one, but "choking" is a valid term to use, even if "social loafing" isn't.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 0:53
  • @Hot Licks: I didn't claim that it is the right word though. I can put that after "choking".
    – ermanen
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 3:03
  • 1
    @ermanen: Thanks for your answer. In my opinion, choking is the best of the responses to date. It suggests self-awareness as a cause for decreased performance rather than anxiety. Performance anxiety is certainly applicable in some situations, but not the example I've provided.
    – Minnow
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 18:29
  • 1
    I, too, thought of choke artist, but I wasn't sure that term was necessarily related to being watched. Nice research here.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 16:54

Performance anxiety might work. Definition here:


I know you disqualified "stage fright" because it relates to anxiety, but is the effect not anxiety-driven?

I do seem to remember some research about both typing speed/accuracy and shoe-tying speed when being watched. I have failed to locate it...

  • Your answer is appreciated (and popular at that). Performance anxiety is certainly applicable in some situations, but not the example I've provided. I attempted to illustrate a low pressure situation, where anxiety is absent and the performance is still affected.
    – Minnow
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 18:31
  • I understand, and I guess it could be described generally as observer effect (though not specifically, because that includes a variety of effects). As I said I think there is research on this and I'm pretty sure I've seen the more precise term you're seeking. Now if only I could find it. Maybe unconscious negative observer effect might come close to characterizing it...
    – Rusty Tuba
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 18:46

How about under pressure or pressurised?

  • Pressure may apply as the basis of the change in performance, but doesn't describe the response. Being under pressure or pressurized may result in higher performance (e.g. meeting a deadline or any of innumerable examples in sport).
    – Minnow
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 18:38
  • True. How about nerve-wracked?
    – Mynamite
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 20:29

I think 'self-conscious' expresses this.

Example: 'when the man appeared before the panel of judges he became self-conscious and fluffed his lines.'

It means that he became aware of what he was doing and that somehow... put him off doing it.

'Uncomfortably conscious of oneself as an object of the observation of others'


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.