The Basic Idea
What was your last group project? Maybe you were in college, grouped with three other perpetually-tired students, trying to collectively write 20 pages on your favorite behavioral phenomenon. Should be easy right? If the work is divided equally, that’s five pages each – a very feasible workload within a semester. However, as you started to work on the project, two of your group members never answered their email, never contributed ideas, and never showed up to group meetings. Sound familiar?
This classic college behavior – that spans far beyond the college years – is referred to in psychology as social loafing.
Theory, meet practice
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Social loafing: This refers to the phenomenon in which people tend to put in less effort on any given assignment when they are working in a group than if they had performed the same task individually.1
Social facilitation: The concept that the real, imagined, or implied presence of others promotes an increase in the level of effort on a given task.2
Collective Effort Model (CEM): A model that proposes working on tasks collectively tends to decrease individual motivation. This is because collective work reduces the belief of each individual that their actions can aid in the attainment of a goal and lowers the subjective value of these goals to each individual.3
Also referred to as the Ringelmann effect, social loafing was discovered by French agricultural engineer Max Ringelmann while working on a rope pulling experiment in 1913. Ringelmann was interested in understanding how agricultural workers could maximize their productivity. During each round of tug-a-war, Ringelmann found that although groups of men pulling would outperform individual men overall, the total pulling force of each group did not equal to the sum of each individual’s maximum pull strength. In other words, each man in a group did not pull as hard collectively as they did when they were asked to pull alone. As well, he found that as more people were added to the group, the further below maximum capacity they would pull. This meant that, if each individual can pull a maximum of 100 units, a group of eight people would pull only 392 units, not 800.1
Ringelmann attributed the source of his findings to two types of losses: coordination and motivation losses. He stated that coordination loss, or the “lack of simultaneity of their efforts,” was the primary cause of social loafing. He believed motivation loss, the belief that other group members will supply the remaining effort, occasionally made the lack of coordination worse.4
Maximilien Ringelmann was a French professor of agricultural engineering. He was involved in the testing and development of agricultural machinery, and was interested in determining its efficiency. Ringelmann’s most notable contributions are the Ringelmann scale, a machine still used today to measure smoke, as well as the Ringelmann effect which is known in the social psychology field as social loafing.
Bibb Latané is an American psychologist widely known for his research on the consequences of social loafing, social impact theory, and bystander intervention, which was prompted after the highly-publicized murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City. Latané’s writing can be seen in over 140 articles, chapters, and books. He has won the Behavioral Science Award twice from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he also won the career research award given by the Society of Experimental Social Psychology and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, as well as James McKeen Cattell and Solomon R. Guggenheim Fellowships.6, 7
One of social loafing’s primary implications is the reduced performance in collaborative group efforts. Inspired by Ringelmann’s initial findings and attributed causes of social loafing, American Social Psychologist Bibb Latané and his colleagues studied noise production in groups versus alone in 1979, and confirmed this idea. Latané and his co-authors state that social loafing is a “disease,” in which the negative consequences affect individuals, social institutions, and societies. It leads to a decrease in human efficiency, lowering profits and thus lowering benefits for everyone.
The study goes on to discuss the causes of social loafing through the lens of the Social Impact Theory, which according to Latané, states that while the overall impact of others on a certain individual increase and the number of people increases, the rate of the increase in impact diminishes as each new person is added. According to Latané, social loafing is caused by three factors:
- Attribution and Equity: The failure to assign and maintain an equitable workload division among group members. This is due to three factors, based on the physics and psychophysics of producing sound: individuals judging their own outputs as louder due to the relative proximity to others, sound cancellation in group settings, and misperceptions of the sound produced in a group. The study mentions that this leads individuals to think that other participants are less motivated or skillful than themselves, leading individuals to produce less sound because they felt there was no reason to work hard when those around them were shirkers or less competent.
- Submaximal Goal Setting: Instead of maximizing the quality of work produced, participants put in enough effort to simply match the standard of what was expected of them. In social psychologist Ivan Dale Steiner’s words, the task was changed from a maximizing task to an optimizing task.
- Lessened Contingency Between Input and Outcome: Participants felt a disconnect between the goal and what needed to be done to get there when performing in groups compared to individually. Since it is difficult to gauge individual efforts when performing in groups, people cannot receive appropriate credit or blame for their efforts.8
In a meta-analysis of 78 studies done by Psychologists Kipling Williams and Steven Karau in 1993, they proposed the idea of the Collective Effort Model (CEM), which hypothesized that working on a collective task will reduce motivation amongst group members due to lowered expectations of successful goal attainment and decrease in the subjective value of the goal.9 According to Williams and Karau, individual expectations for goal attainment tend to be low since it is difficult to predict the probability of success for an entire group compared to working alone. This study also found support for the idea that “loafing was greater among men than women, in Western countries compared to Eastern ones, and for simple tasks rather than complex ones.” 2, 10, 11
The definitions of social facilitation and social loafing might seem to contradict each other. Does the presence of others help performance (social facilitation) or hinder it (social loafing)? This discrepancy will be clearer once their definitions are clarified. Social loafing requires collaborative work: everyone present must strive to complete the same goal. Social facilitation, however, does not require collaborative work. Social facilitation simply requires others to be present — they don’t need to be working to reach the same goal.
In the same study done by Lantané and colleagues in 1979 discussed above (whose aim was to replicate Ringelmann’s 1913 experiment findings), Lanté and colleagues found that instead of the previously attributed reason for social loafing being lack of coordination as stated originally by Ringelmann, there was a reduction in individual efforts due to causes stated above (Attribution and Equity, Submaximal Goal Setting, and Lessened Contingency Between Input and Outcome). This does not discredit whether social loafing exists, but simply provides more reasons to explain its occurrence.
A study done by Williams and Karau in 1991 found support for the social compensation hypothesis, which states that people tend to work harder in group settings than individually when they expect their group member to perform poorly on an important task. They studied participants working either collectively or collaboratively on an idea generation task, with expectations of group member performance being inferred from participant interpersonal trust scores, direct manipulations from a confederate group member statement of intended effort, or their ability at the task.12
This contradicts the first attributed cause cited by Latané and colleagues in 1979 above, as this study argues that when group members are perceived to put in less effort, the individual will put in more effort to compensate. On the other hand, Latané and colleagues state that individuals will put in less effort because they believe there is no reason to put in a lot of effort when those around them were shirkers. Perhaps more research needs to be done in order to understand the circumstances under which social loafing and social compensation apply.
Can Workplace Friendship Reduce Social Loafing?
In a study done in Taiwan, researchers examined the relationship between workplace friendships and the effects of social loafing among employees in a Certified Public Accounting (CPA) firm. They found that there was a negative relationship between workplace friendship and social loafing effect among CPA employees. In other words, the closer a pair of CPA employees were, the less social loafing was observed, and thus more effort was put in on collective tasks involving both parties.13
Why Less Is More in Teams
A publication in the Harvard Business Review provides some food for thought by asking the reader why they think different sports have different specifications for the number of players that can play at once. It addresses the possible causes of social loafing and provides four options for how one can prevent social loafing when reducing group size is not an option: (1) dividing tasks in such a way so that each team member can be held accountable for a part of the overall goal, (2) creating a sense of urgency amongst members, (3) making weaker team members feel overly responsible for the underperformance of the team (which the author notes to be “unappetizing”), and (4) creating an environment that is transparent and open in terms of providing and receiving feedback.14
Social Loafing versus Elite Female Rowers
A 1995 publication from Anshel analyzes the effects of task duration and mood on elite female rowers. Arguably, rowing is particularly interesting in the context of social loafing as the task itself requires high-level coordination in order to reach the team’s highest performance capabilities.
As predicted, researchers found that social loafing did not occur when performing tasks alone. However, social loafing did not occur under the “short duration” condition and was only apparent when participants performed the task under relatively prolonged conditions. This contradicts the findings of previous research, as they have suggested that social loafing occurs when the task at hand is not personally interesting or holds important meaning and consequences to those involved.15 The most note-worthy finding for this particular study is that social loafing was an influence not only by the presence (or lack thereof) of other rowers or the amount of effort put into the task but also by the duration of the task. They offer a possible explanation to be that the longer the duration of the task, the harder it is to identify who may be slacking in effort.16
Related TDL Content
Although Western society prides itself in maintaining an individualistic culture, it still falls prey to social norms. Why do humans tend to follow the behavior of others? Read this to find out about social norms, such as why we tend to feel uncomfortable in elevators when someone decides to face away from the door instead of towards it.
Inaction can be caused by many things. In this reference guide, one cause discussed is facing too many choices. While we’d expect more choices to be good, having too many options can stifle your ability to choose. Read this to find out more about this seemingly contradictory phenomenon.
Another way we act differently in groups versus alone is in our willingness to offer help. Find out more on why we are more likely to offer help to a singular individual rather than a group of people in this piece on the identifiable victim effect.
- Hoffman, R. (2020, June 22). Social loafing: Definition, examples and theory. Social Loafing: Definition, Examples & Theory | Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/social-loafing.html.
- Mcleod, S. (2020, June 24). Social facilitation. Social Facilitation | Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Social-Facilitation.html.
- Collective effort model. Oxford Reference. (n.d.). https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095623999#:~:text=Quick%20Reference,these%20goals%20to%20the%20individual.
- Ringelmann, M. (1913). Recherches sur les moteurs animés: Travail de l’homme [Research on animate sources of power: The work of man]. Annales de l’Institut National Agronomique, 2e série—tome XII, 1-40.
- Simon, B. (1998). Max Ringelmann (1861-1931) et la recherche en machinisme agricole. In Fontanon, Claudine (ed.). Histoire de la mécanique appliquée enseignement, recherche et pratiques mécaniciennes en France après 1880 (pp. 47–55). Paris: ENS Editions.
- Team, G. T. E. (2011, November 11). Bibb latane. Biography. https://www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/bibb-latane.html.
- Plous, S. (2010, April 25). Bibb Latané. https://latane.socialpsychology.org/.
- Latané, B., Williams, K., & Harkins, S. (1979). Many hands make light the work: The causes and consequences of social loafing. Journal of personality and social psychology, 37(6), 822.
- American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Apa dictionary of psychology – collective effort model (CEM). American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/collective-effort-model.
- Karau, S. J., & Williams, K. D. (1993). Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of personality and social psychology, 65(4), 681.
- Forsyth, D. R. (2009). In Group dynamics, ECH master (p. 298). essay, B.C. College and Institute Library Services.
- Williams, K. D., & Karau, S. J. (1991). Social loafing and social compensation: The effects of expectations of co-worker performance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 61(4), 570.
- Shih, C. H., & Wang, Y. H. (2016, July). Can workplace friendship reduce social loafing?. In 2016 10th International conference on innovative mobile and internet services in Ubiquitous Computing (IMIS) (pp. 522-526). IEEE.
- de Rond, M. (2014, July 23). Why less is more in teams. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2012/08/why-less-is-more-in-teams.
- Brickner, M. A., Harkins, S. G., & Ostrom, T. M. (1986). Effects of personal involvement: Thought-provoking implications for social loafing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(4), 763.
- Anshel, M. H. (1995). Examining social loafing among elite female rowers as a function of task duration and mood. Journal of Sport Behavior, 18(1), 39. https://proxy.library.mcgill.ca/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/examining-social-loafing-among-elite-female/docview/215868894/se-2?accountid=12339