What Is Social Loafing? Definition and Examples

Why Working in Groups Can Make Us Less Productive

Friends play tug of war.

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Social loafing is a phenomenon in which people put in less effort on a task when they are working in a group, compared to when they are working alone. Researchers focusing on the efficiency of groups study why this phenomenon occurs and what can be done to prevent it.

Key Takeaways: Social Loafing

  • Psychologists define social loafing as the tendency to put in less effort when working as part of a group, compared to when working individually.
  • Social loafing is one of the reasons why groups sometimes work ineffectively.
  • Although social loafing is a common occurrence, it doesn’t always happen—and steps can be taken to encourage people to put in more effort on group projects.

Overview

Imagine you’re assigned to complete a group project with your classmates or coworkers. Will you work more effectively as part of a group, or on your own?

Some research suggests that people can actually be less effective when they’re working as members of a group. For example, you and your classmates might have difficulty coordinating the tasks. You might divide up the work in an ineffective way, or duplicate each other’s efforts if you don’t coordinate who does what. You might also face difficulties if not everyone in the group puts in the same amount of work—for example, some of your classmates might be less inclined to put in effort on the project, thinking that others’ work will make up for their inaction.

If you’re not a fan of group work, you might not be surprised to know that psychologists have found that this really does happen: people tend to put in less effort when they’re part of a group, compared to when they’re completing tasks individually.

Key Studies

The relative inefficiency of groups was first studied by Max Ringelmann in the early 1900s. He asked people to try to pull as hard as possible on a rope and measured how much pressure they were able to exert while on their own, compared to in groups. He found that a group of two worked less efficiently than two people working independently. Moreover, as the groups got larger, the amount of weight that each individual pulled decreased. In other words, a group as a whole was able to accomplish more than a single person—but, in groups, the amount of weight that each individual group member had pulled was less.

Several decades later, in 1979, researchers Bibb Latané, Kipling Williams, and Stephen Harkins published a landmark study on social loafing. They asked male college students to try to clap or shout as loudly as possible. When participants were in groups, the noise made by each person was less than the amount of noise that they had made when they were working individually. In a second study, the researchers sought to test out whether merely thinking that they were part of a group was enough to cause social loafing. To test this, the researchers had participants wear blindfolds and headphones, and told them that other participants would be shouting with them (in actuality, the other participants had not been given the instruction to shout). When participants thought they were acting as part of a group (but were actually in the “fake” group and were really shouting by themselves), they weren’t as loud as when they thought they were shouting individually.

Importantly, the second study by Latané and colleagues gets at the reasons why group work can be so ineffective. Psychologists hypothesize that part of the ineffectiveness of group work is due to something called coordination loss (i.e. the group members don’t coordinate their actions effectively) and that part is due to people putting in less effort when part of a group (i.e. social loafing). Latané and colleagues found that people were most efficient when working alone, somewhat less efficient when they only thought they were part of a group, and even less efficient when they were actually part of a group. Based on this, Latané and colleagues suggested that some of the inefficiency of group work comes from coordination losses (which could only happen in the real groups), but social loafing plays a role too (since coordination loss couldn’t account for why the “fake” groups were still less efficient).

Can Social Loafing Be Reduced?

In a 1993 meta-analysis, Steven Karau and Kipling Williams combined the results of 78 other studies to assess when social loafing happens. Overall, they found support for the idea that social loafing occurs. However, they found that some circumstances were able to reduce social loafing or even stop it from happening. Based on this research, Karau and Williams suggest that several strategies can potentially reduce social loafing:

  • There should be a way to monitor each individual group member’s work.
  • The work should be meaningful.
  • People should feel that the group is cohesive.
  • The tasks should be set up so that each person in the group is able to make a unique contribution and each person feels that their part of the work matters.

Comparison to Related Theories

Social loafing is related to another theory in psychology, the idea of diffusion of responsibility. According to this theory, individuals feel less responsible for acting in a given situation if there are other people present who could also act. For both social loafing and diffusion of responsibility, a similar strategy can be used to combat our tendency for inaction when we’re part of a group: assigning people unique, individual tasks to be responsible for.

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