How Social Loafing Is Studied in Psychology

two women and one men sitting at a table together not talking
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Social loafing describes the tendency of individuals to put forth less effort when they are part of a group. Because all members of the group are pooling their effort to achieve a common goal, each member of the group contributes less than they would if they were individually responsible.

Overview

Imagine that your teacher assigned you to work on a class project with a group of 10 other students.

If you were working on your own, you would have broken down the assignment into steps and started work right away. Since you are part of a group, however, the social loafing tendency makes it likely that you would put less effort into the project. Instead of assuming responsibility for certain tasks, you might just think that another group member will take care of it.

Or in some cases, the other members of your group assume that someone else will take care of their share of the work, and you end up getting stuck doing the entire assignment yourself.

Ringelmann's Rope-Pulling Experiments

One of the first experiments in social loafing was conducted by French agricultural engineer, Max Ringelmann in 1913.

He asked participants to pull on a rope both alone and in groups. He found that when people were part of a group, they made less of an effort to pull the rope than they did when working individually.

A group of researchers replicated Ringlemann's experiment in 1974, with a few small changes. The first group was consistent with Ringelmann's original study and contained small groups of participants. The second panel consisted of only one real participant; the rest were confederates who merely pretended to pull the rope.

The researchers found that the groups containing all real participants experienced the largest declines in performance, suggesting the losses were linked to motivational factors rather than group coordination problems.

A 2005 study found that group size can have a powerful impact on group performance. In the study, half of the groups consisted of four people while the other half consisted of eight. Some groups worked at a table together, while distributed groups worked on the same problem communicating only through computers.

The researchers found that people extended greater individual effort when they were in smaller groups in both the distributed and collocated situations. When placed in collocated groups, however, people felt greater pressure to look busy even when they were not, while those in the distributed groups were less likely to feel such pressure.

Causes

If you have ever worked as part of a group toward a larger goal, then you have undoubtedly experienced this psychological phenomenon firsthand. And if you’ve ever led a group, then you have likely felt frustration at the lack of effort that group members sometimes put forth. Why does this sometimes aggravating malingering happen?

Psychologists have come up with a few possible explanations.

  • Motivation (or lack thereof): This can play an important role in determining whether social loafing takes place. People who are less motivated by a task are more likely to engage in social loafing when they are part of a group.
  • Diffusion of responsibility: People are more likely to engage in social loafing if they feel less personally accountable for a task, and know their individual efforts have little impact on the overall outcome. This is often used to explain the bystander effect, or the tendency to be less likely to help a person in need when others are present.
  • Group size: In small groups, people are more likely to feel their efforts are more important and will, therefore, contribute more. The larger the group, however, the less individual effort people will extend.
  • Expectations: If you expect other people to slack off, you probably will as well since you don’t want to get stuck doing all of the work. On the other hand, if you are in a group of high-achievers who seem to be in control of everything, you might also be more likely to kick back and let them handle all the work.

How to Reduce Social Loafing

Social loafing can have a serious impact on group performance and efficiency. However, there are some things that can be done to minimize the effects of social loafing.

  • Assigning individual tasks and responsibilities
  • Creating small groups and establishing individual accountability can help.
  • Establishing clear standards and rules
  • Evaluating individual and group performance
  • Highlighting the achievements of individual members
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Article Sources
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