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.

Example of Social Loafing

Imagine that your teacher assigned you to work on a class project with a group of ten 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 one of the other group members 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.


If you have ever worked as part of a group toward a larger goal, then you have undoubtedly experienced this psychological phenomenon first-hand. 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 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 also contributes to social loafing. When in groups, people tend to feel less personal accountability and may even feel that their individual efforts have little impact on the outcome. It is this same diffusion of responsibility that influences what is known as the bystander effect, or the tendency to be less likely to help a person in trouble when other people are present. Because people assume that their efforts don’t matter and that they are not personally responsible, they also assume that someone else will be the one to take action.
  • Group size also has a serious impact on the effort people put forth in groups. In small groups, people are more likely to feel that their efforts are more important and will, therefore, contribute more. The larger the group, however, the less individual effort people will extend.
  • Expectations also matter when it comes to group performance. 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 like they are in control of the group’s efforts, you might also be more likely to kick back and let them handle all the work.


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.

Creating small groups and establishing individual accountability can help. Groups should develop standards and rules, define tasks, assign responsibilities, evaluate personal and collective progress, and highlight the achievements of individual members.

By personalizing the group, engaging individuals in certain tasks, and encouraging team loyalty, people will be more likely to give their all when working as part of a group.

Ringelmann's Rope-Pulling Experiments

A French agricultural engineer named Max Ringelmann conducted one of the earliest experiments on this phenomenon in 1913. In his research, he asked participants to pull on a rope both individually and in groups. What he discovered 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 the 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 involved using confederates and only one real participant in each group. The confederates merely pretended to pull the rope. The researchers found that the groups containing all real participants experienced the largest declines in performance, suggested that 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 8. Some groups were then assigned to a collocated setting in which all of the team members worked together at a table to solve the problem that the experimenters had given them. Other groups were placed in a distributed setting where they worked on the same problem electronically by communicating from separate 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.

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Article Sources

  • Forsyth DR. Group Dynamics. New York: Wadsworth. 2009.