by Julian Schmidt
The concept of social loafing describes the phenomenon which leads to the reduction of the individual contribution to a collective effort, compared to the effort an individual would make when working alone. Resulting from this effect a group can often times not fulfil its full potential, and the overall performance is reduced. While the phenomenon was initially described by French researcher Max Ringelmann in the early twentieth century, the term social loafing was introduced by Bibb Latané, et al., in 1979. In the following decades the topic has been covered in research with a broad spectrum of perspectives, which have produced a multitude of theories for causes and mitigation techniques. A popular theory that attempts to explain the phenomenon of social loafing is the concept of evaluation-potential. It proposes that the degree to which an individual contribution of a group member is identifiable will determine the likelihood of that individual to either be involved or to socially loaf. Another angle towards explaining social loafing in group situations is the social impact theory which describes the linkage between social forces and the behaviour of a person.  The theory postulates that when a member of a group is exposed to external social forces, the group has a shielding function and thereby reduces the need of the person to act according to the pressure. Other theories in the evolving field of research address aspects such as an individual’s perception of his or her own contribution in a group setting or the sense of fairness with regards to the equity of effort of different team members.
Within project management the domain of team performance plays a central role, as it deals with the structural and managerial factors that make a team effective and competitive when working on a project. In that context the phenomena of social loafing is an important aspect to consider, as it has the potential to slow down processes and negatively affect the competitiveness of the company or organization. For the long-term success it is therefore of crucial importance to streamline the organizational structure, and mitigate pitfalls and risks that have the potential to slow it down. A number of tools and strategies have therefore been identified, which can be implemented by a project manager in order to set-up and influence the dynamics of group projects accordingly. These include methods of shaping and organising a group in such a way that social loafing can be avoided, but also specific way of how to define the boundaries of a project itself. Next to these methods which approach the challenge of mitigation from an organizational perspective, there are means and incentives which address which aim to address individuals on a personal level in order to modify their behaviour.
The phenomenon of a decrease in individual effort in group situations was first discovered by the French agricultural engineer Max Ringelmann, who was studying the how to optimize the use of human workforce in the context of agricultural labour. In an experiment that he conducted, both individuals and groups were asked to pull a rope which was connected to a device that measured the exerted force. When conducting the experiment with a group, the total force did not correspond to the sum of the maximum force previously exerted by each individual, and further decreased with a growing group size. The conclusion from this observation was that individuals did reduce their effort when performing a task in a group. When revisiting this observation in the early 1970s, this hypothesis was criticised and the argument was broad forward, that a reduced performance in groups is not related to the reduction of individual effort and contribution but rather the lack of coordination and organizational framework. To validate the findings of Ringelmann, the experiment was replicated by Ingham, et al., in 1974, however with the modification that the test subjects were blindfolded and did not know they were pulling on the rope alone when they were led to believe that they were in a group. The results of the experiments confirmed the observation of Ringelmann, as individual participants reduced their effort when they believed to be acting in a group. In 1979 Ingham’s study was repeated, this time however by removing the aspect of physical labour and replacing it through the simple task of yelling and clapping. Latane, et al., did not only proof that the reduction in effort was not related to a lack of coordination, but also introduced the term social loafing that has since been used to describe the phenomenon. In the following years the research on the topic has been expanded widely, including the occurrence of the phenomenon in physical, cognitive and perceptual tasks.
A common misconception about the phenomenon of social loafing is the assumption that it is greatly determined by the personality traits of an individual that is exposed to a group setting. When attempting to find evidence for that claim within a study conducted by Charbonnier, et al., in a study in 1998, the opposite case turned out to be true. While character traits such as agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness where investigated in an experimental setup, it was found that the development and strength of none of these traits has any significant influence on the likelihood of an individual to socially loaf when embedded with other team members in a group project. Cultural aspects on the other hand seem to play a major role in the tendency that individuals have to socially loaf, specifically the two cultural dimensions of collectivism and individualism. In addition to that, the predominant level of power distance, which refers to the distribution of power between individual members of an organization or society, plays a significant role. While individuals in collectivistic cultures tend to lean towards conformity and the uniform distribution of effort, people in individualistic cultures have a higher likelihood to socially loaf when engaged in group activities. When it comes to power distance, it can be found that there is a direct correlation between the degree of power distance and the likelihood of a person to socially loaf. Next to the personality traits of an individual and the predominant cultural environment, the role of gender is a third aspect that has interesting implications with regards to phenomenon of social loafing. Throughout various studies it has been found that male individuals have a significantly higher inclination towards social loafing than female individuals when exposed to the same conditions.
Social impact theory
The social impact theory draws a connection between the social environment that an individual is exposed to, and the resulting actions of the depending on the setting within which it is exposed to that environment. When having to accomplish a task or a project, a person is affected by a certain degree of social pressure, which depends on multiple factors such as the immediacy or the number of people that exert the pressure. While the social pressure someone is experiencing is significant when working alone and independently, a group may act as a sort of shield or buffer that diffuses and therefore reduces the social pressure perceived by the individual. As perceived social pressure is a major external force that is driving an individual to exert effort, a reduction of this pressure will increase the potential of a person to socially loaf in a group setting. Research has shown that the effect of diminishing social pressure when experienced by an individual in a group setting is proportional to the size of the group as well as factors such as the cohesiveness among its members. A further approach that takes the focus from the group as a collective towards the viewpoint of the group as a cluster of individual actors argues that co-workers serve the function of co-targets that share the social pressure with each other.. According to this viewpoint, an individual is not prone to social loafing because it is part of a group, but rather due to the existence of other individual co-workers that experience the same level of social pressure.
The expectancy-value theory attempts to provide a hypothesis on how the combination of the three factors expectancy, instrumentality and value affects the tendency an individual has towards social loafing when participating in a group project. The first factor expectancy relates to the perception of an individual that there is a correlation between making an effort and therefore achieving a better resulting performance. The second term instrumentality refers to the assumption that there is a correlation between the performance and the eventual outcome, and can therefore be seen as an extension or continuation of the expectancy. Outcome value as a third factor defines the significance that an individual assigns towards an outcome, and can be expressed as the difference between the rewards and costs attributed to achieving it. Each of these factors can be quantified on a scale from 0 to 1, whereas 0 corresponds to the minimum and 1 corresponds to the maximum possible prominence of the factor. When multiplying the three factors expectancy, instrumentality and value, the resulting product is the effort motivation which in return also varies between 0 at the minimum and 1 at the maximum, which can be visually summarized as seen in Figure 1. The effort motivation is a measure that allows quantifying the effort an individual is willing to exert in order to perform a certain task, and can predict the likelihood for the occurrence of social loafing when that individual is part of a group project. It should be noted that all three factors and therefore the resulting effort motivation are subject to a person’s individual judgement and perception, and it is therefore not possible to apply an objective measure to them from the outside.
A very fundamental and straight-forward theory that attempts to explain the phenomenon of social loafing is the concept of evaluation-potential, which refers to the ability to attribute a specific performance or result of a group project to a single individual. When working individually on a task or assignment, there is a direct correlation between the quality of the outcome and the exerted effort of the individual. However, as a group becomes larger and the extent or duration of a project grows, it becomes harder to make this direct allocation from an outside perspective. In that situation the personal accountability and sense of responsibility of the individual members of the group is reduced, which in return leads to an increased potential for social loafing as the individual need to proof or showcase the own contributions is reduced.
Dispensability and equity of effort
The perception of effort in a group setting is an important determinant for the effort an individual member will contribute towards the accomplishment of a project. In that context the concept of the dispensability of effort describes the phenomenon in which an individual member of a team may reduce his or her effort and socially loaf when perceiving that the own contribution does not have a significant impact. The perception of dispensability can either be attributed to the feeling that other team members might be more capable or competent when working on a specific task, or that other team members are able to accomplish the task with an equal outcome.
A further theory that deals with the perception of effort in a group setting is the concept of the equity of effort, which is founded in the assumption that people have a strong sense for equity and fairness when it comes to the distribution of work and effort in a group setting. Individuals that are part of a group may become suspicious of the effort and performance of their peers, when there is a low degree of trust among each other or there is a poor level of communication. This in return can lead these people to socially loaf and reduce the effort they exert in a group by matching their performance with the one they believe that their peers exert, thereby re-establishing a perceived level of equity among the different group members.
In order to anticipate the occurance of social loafing and actively mitigate detrimental affects on the outcome of a project, a number of mitigation strategies have been identified that can assist project management in realizing the objectives in the domain of team performance. These strategies adress organizational aspects such as the set-up and structuring of a group, but also the definition of a rpoject itself in terms of the extend and duration. In addition to that internal as well as external incentives can be applied on the individual level. A short overview of the strategies which can be implemented by project management and are discussed in more detail in the following sections is provided in the table below.
|Group composition|| - Constrain the group to a size of at least 2 and no more than 6 members.|
- Allow group members to decide for themselves with whom they want to work with.
|Project scope||- Clearly define and limit the complexity and the timewise extent of a group project.|
|External incentives||- Make individual contributions to a group project both identifiable and quantifiable.|
|Internal incentives|| - Introduce self-evaluation of the individual members throughout the project.|
- Assign individuals to tasks that they personally perceive as interesting and relevant.
When discussing the composition or structure of a group working on a project, the group size is the most significant metric that has an impact on the performance. Research suggests that the social identity which a group member is sharing with a group has a large impact on the motivation that the individual member has to contribute, and is inversely proportional to the size of the group. The tendency towards social loafing is therefore greater the larger the group is, which is why the size of the group should be limited. While it is evident that the size of the group has a distinctive influence on its performance, there is an ongoing debate about the exact size which can be regarded as ideal. Different researchers have proposed sizes ranging from two to four at the lower limit and five to six at the upper limit, that have proven to be effective when attempting to achieve the objective of improving performance and mitigating the risk for social loafing.
Next to the group size the group formation plays an important role. The degree to which someone is self-categorizing or identifying himself or herself as a member of a group is predicting the level to which that person is willing to contribute towards the accomplishment of a shared goal. The identification of individuals with a group has shown to be higher when the composition of the group is chosen voluntarily by its members, which in return leads to a higher cohesiveness and solidarity among them. Specifically it has been found that groups of friends are performing better that groups composed of individuals that have no specific relation to each other. Whenever possible it is therefore beneficial for the prevention of social loafing during group projects, to allow individuals to select for themselves which group composition they prefer instead of assigning them to a group without taking personal preferences into account.
While the group constellation in itself has a significant impact on the performance and tendency towards social loafing, the scope and extent of a project plays a crucial role. The observation can be made, that an increasing scope and complexity of a group project leads to a direct increase in its proneness for social loafing. This is attributed to the observation that individuals who participate in a group project perceive that their contributions as less impactful when a project surmounts a certain extent in scope or exceeds a specific timeframe. An effective measure that can therefore be applied to counteract social loafing is to control the scope of a project, both in terms of the complexity and the timewise extent.
According to research, the occurrence of social loafing can be mitigated by introducing specific incentives which lead to an increase of performance that an individual displays in a group setting. These incentives can be external or internal in their nature, and attempt to attach a sense of value on the one hand, or urgency on the other hand to contributing towards a task. As research is suggesting, a setting in which individual contributions cannot be identified promotes social loafing not only in the individual case but on a collective level. This can be attributed to the fact, that individuals are subjected to less pressure to make a sufficient effort because they can neither be sanctioned for a poor performance nor rewarded for their achievements.  While the ability to identify an individual contribution is an important step towards the avoidance of social loafing, this measure alone is not sufficient. Through a study performed by Stephen Harkins and Jeffrey Jackson it was concluded, that the performance of an individual does not only have to be identifiable but also quantifiable through evaluation. Experimentally they found that test subjects who were led to believe that their contribution to a task were not quantifiable despite being identified, did not show any more effort than test subjects that were making contributions which could not be identified. The conclusion is therefore that only the combination of making the contribution of an individual to a group task both identifiable and quantifiable works as a sufficiently potent external incentive.
Similar to external incentives that can be achieved by structuring the work in a group accordingly, internal incentives can be introduced to mitigate the occurrence of the social loafing phenomenon. While the presented external incentive includes quantifying individual performance through evaluation from the outside, research suggests that the ability of group members to judge their own performance tends to increase their desire to improve their effort. The cause for this behaviour can be found in the intrinsic desire of individuals to have a favourable perception of themselves. This finding can therefore be used as an internal incentive, by introducing the practice of self-evaluation of the individual members throughout the course of a project. A further aspect that leads individuals to improve their performance in a group context is when they find the task intrinsically interesting. This can either be the case when they perceive task as meaningful or the result of the task has an important relevance. This effect was experimentally proven by researchers John Cacioppo and Richard Petty, by establishing a link between the need for cognition and the affinity towards cognitively challenging tasks. One measure against social loafing that can therefore be derived from this finding is to attempt assigning individuals to tasks that they find personally interesting and relevant.
The research conducted on the phenomenon of social loafing has provided a broad theoretical framework that offers a multitude of principles and concepts explaining the underlying mechanisms. While the concept of evalution-potential and the social impact theory take an angle of external forces acting on the motivation of an individual, the dispensability and equity of effort theorems as well as the expectancy value theory address the internal perception of a person as the root cause for his or her actions. All of these concepts have in common, that they were identified in experimental settings with strictly defined rules and boundaries. In a workplace environment however, the organizational structure and social interactions tend to be more complex with many more degrees of freedom. For a project manager, this makes the identification of the cause for a reduction of effort in a group setting rather challenging, as the theoretical concepts are not or only partially applicable. In the context of applied project management, the findings of the research in the field of social loafing are therefore hardly useful as a diagnostic tool. However, the various mitigation strategies presented in the article can directly be implemented in the organizational structure and set-up of groups, and therefore provide a valuable resource for project management to improve and optimize productivity in team-based tasks and activities.
A further point of interest from a perspective of project management is the proliferation of the social loafing phenomena on a department level. While the previous research on the topic has focussed on the occurrence of effort reduction of individuals when working in a group, most medium and large scale companies and organisations structure their operations into departments and sub-departments. A valuable addition to the research could therefore be on the topic of how and if the concept of social loafing can be extended from an individual level to a department level, especially in situations where there are multiple departments that have an overlay in their work and functions, and where competences and responsibilities are not properly assigned or divided.
- 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, Vol. 37, No. 6, 822-832.
- The research by Latané, Williams and Harkins has not only introduced the term social loafing, but also served as the foundation and starting point for further investigations in the following decades. The article provides a thorough description of the social loafing phenomenon and provides several concepts that attempt to explain the underlying causes.
- Frash , R., Kline, S.F., Stahura, J.M., (2004). Mitigating Social Loafing in Team-Based Learning. Journal of Teaching in Travel & Tourism, Vol. 3, No. 4, 57-77
- The article gives a comprehensive overview about the historical context of social loafing in terms of the research, as well as a number of different popular theoretical accounts that attempt to explain the phenomenon. In addition to that methods for peer evaluation which help to mitigate social loafing are explored.
- Aggarwal, P., O’Brien, C.L., (2008). Social Loafing on Group Projects: Structural Antecedents and Effect on Student Satisfaction. Journal of Marketing Education, Vol. 30, No. 3, 255-264
- A broad discussion of te concept of social loafing that includes an in-depth presentation of different hypothesis that explain its occurance in the specific context of group projects. Furthermore the article discusses a study investigating the influence of different group parameters, such as group size and grou formation, and the strength of their influence on social loafing.
- Suleiman, J., Watson, R.T., (2008). Social Loafing in Technology-Supported Teams. Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Vol. 17, No. 4, 291-309
- The article examines the factors contributing to the phenomenon of social loafing in the contet of technology-supported teams. Besides the discussion of theoretical concepts, the conduction and results of a controlled laboratory experiment investigating the effects of feedback, group size and anonymity on the potential for social loafing are presented.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Shepperd, J.A. (2001) Social loafing and expectancy-value theory in Multiple Perspectives on the Effects of Evaluation of Performance: Toward an Integratiom. New York: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 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, Vol. 37, No. 6, 822-832.
- ↑ Harkins, S.G., Szymanski, K., (1989) Social Loafing and Group Evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 56, No. 6,934-941.
- ↑ Frash, R.E., Kline, S., Stahura, J.M., (2004) Mitigating Social Loafing in Team-Based Learning. Journal of Teaching in Travel & Tourism, 3:4, 57-77.
- ↑ 5.0 5.1 A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide), 7th Edition, (2021), Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc.
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., Smith, K. A. (1991) Active learning: cooperation in the college classroom. Edina: Interaction Book Company.
- ↑ Steiner, I. D. (1972). Group Process and Productivity. New York, NY: Academic Press.
- ↑ Ingham, A. G., Levinger, G., Graves, J., & Peckham, V. (1974).. The Ringelmann effect: Studies of group size and group performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 10, No. 4, 371–384.
- ↑ Charbonnier, E., Huguet, P., Brauer, M., & Monteil, J.-M. (1998). Social loafing and self-beliefs: People's collective effort depends on the extent to which they distinguish themselves as better than others. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, Vol. 26, No. 4, 329–340.
- ↑ Klehe, U.-C., & Anderson, N. (2007). The moderating influence of personality and culture on social loafing in typical versus maximum performance situations. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, Vol. 15, No. 2, 329–340.
- ↑ Kugihara, N. (1999). Gender and social loafing in Japan. The Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 139, No. 4, 516–526.
- ↑ Stark, E. M., Shaw, J. D., & Duffy, M. K. (2007). Preference for Group Work, Winning Orientation, and Social Loafing Behavior in Groups. Group & Organization Management, Vol. 32, No. 6, 699-723.
- ↑ 13.0 13.1 13.2 Karau, S., Williams, K. (1993). Social Loafing: A Meta-Analytic Review and Theoretical Integration Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 65, No. 4, 681-706.
- ↑ 14.0 14.1 14.2 Jackson, J. M., Williams, K. D. (1985). Social loafing on difficult tasks: Working collectively can improve performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 49, No. 4, 937–942.
- ↑ Shepperd, J. A. (1993). Productivity loss in performance groups: A motivation analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 113, No. 1, 67–81.
- ↑ Suleiman, J., Watson, R.T., (2008). Social Loafing in Technology-Supported Teams. Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Vol. 17, No. 4, 291-309.
- ↑ 17.0 17.1 Kerr, N.L., Bruun, S.E. (1983). Dispensability of member effort and group motivation losses: Free-rider effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 44, No. 1, 78–94.
- ↑ Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (2004) The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior in Jost, J. T., Sidanius, J. Political psychology: Key readings Chicago: Hall Publishers.
- ↑ 19.0 19.1 Aggarwal, P., O’Brien, C.L., (2008) Social Loafing on Group Projects: Structural Antecedents and Effect on Student Satisfaction. Journal of Marketing Education, Vol. 30, No. 3, 255-264
- ↑ Aronson, E., Stephan, C., Sikes, J., Blaney, N., & Snapp, M. (1978). The Jigsaw Classroom. Beverly Hills: Sage Publication.
- ↑ Cioffi, D., & Garner, R. (1996). On doing the decision: Effects of active versus passive choice on commitment and self-perception. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 22, No. 2, 133–147.
- ↑ Mahenthiran, S. and Rouse, P.J. (2000). The impact of group selection on student performance and satisfaction. International Journal of Educational Management, Vol. 14 No. 6, pp. 255-265.
- ↑ Szymanski, K., Harkins, S.G. (1987) Social Loafing and Self-Evaluation With a Social Standard. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 53, No. 5, 891-897.
- ↑ Cacioppo, J.T., Richard, E.P. (1982) The Need for Cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 42, No. 5, 116-131.