Social Loafing in Projects

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Collective work, collaboration, and the exchange between individuals are inherent in our society. Those relations are important in all aspects of life: social and professional; and at an early age, people learn the importance of teamwork. Most companies and institutions rely on teamwork and team effort. Most of the time, this strategy is highly successful, but why do so many people don’t like group working? One of the biggest reasons could be a phenomenon called social loafing.

Social loafing is the tendency of people to make less effort when working in a group than when working individually [1]. There are many reasons why this happens, one example is that individuals tend to loaf when their performance cannot be evaluated [2]. Many experiments were made during the past decades to investigate why, and in which circumstances social loafing occurs. It is a big challenge to project leaders to avoid this behavior in their teams. How to keep a team motivated? How to make people work collectively keeping up the high efficiency and quality of the work delivered?

The article will go through some of the experiments made to investigate social loafing, such as the simple rope-pulling task made by Ringelmann in 1913, to a more complex task that requires concentration from the participants; potential causes why individuals don’t give their best when working in a group; and to conclude, some measurements and actions to prevent social loafing to occur. Avoiding social loafing has immense importance to project management because this tendency can be detrimental to a project’s success.


Social loafing

Social loafing is defined as the reduction of effort and motivation of individuals when working collectively, compared to working by themselves or in coactive work [3]. Coactive work means people having individual tasks within a team setting.

Our society is based on group work: governments, organizations, sports, etc. And the success of the tasks performed by a group depends on many different factors. A project is usually composed of multiple people with different expertise, therefore good group and project management are crucial, and identifying potential problems, such as social loafing, is extremely important.

Many psychologists and researchers realized different experiments to understand why people tend to loaf when working in groups, and what could be done better to improve the overall performance of a group. For Latané, Williams, and Harkins, social loafing could be considered a social “disease” for having “negative consequences for individuals, social institutions, and societies” [1].

Experiments tasks inputs

Those experiments involved tasks with different inputs that can be classified as [3]:

  • Types of effort necessary: physical, cognitive, perceptual, or evaluative
  • Difficulty levels: simple or complex
  • Criteria of performance: maximizing or optimizing results
  • Task value for the subjects: high or low
  • Group value: close friends, teammates, group cohesiveness, etc.
  • The expectation of group members performance: high or low
  • Group or Individual evaluation: opportunity to get feedback and be individually evaluated
  • Task uniqueness: if all subjects had the same task or different one
  • Group size
  • Age of the subjects
  • Gender of the subjects
  • Status of the subjects: young students, undergraduate students, or companies’ employees
  • Subjects’ culture: Eastern or Western

Investigating social loafing: examples of experiments

A) Pulling-rope experiment

In 1913, a German psychologist called Ringelmann made an experiment involving rope pulling. This experiment was never published but it was described and used in many papers to explain social loafing. The experiment consisted of asking workers to pull a rope as hard they could, and the force was measured by a machine that could tell how many kilograms of pressure they were making when pulling the rope. They expected that the group force would be equivalent to the sum of the individual efforts, but the result was completely different. As the group members increased, the force made by each worker decreased [1].

Summary of the results of Ringelmann’s experiment [1].

In 1972, Steiner proposed two possible causes of the lower individual performance in Ringelmann’s experiment: loss of motivation or coordination loss [3].

B) Hand clapping and shouting loud

Clapping Experiment Results [1].
First experiment:
Latané, Williams, and Harkins proposed a new experiment, they evaluated how much sound pressure a group of undergraduate students made when standing alone, in pairs, in groups of 4 and 6. The students were placed in a soundproof room, with a General Radio sound-level meter. The results were similar to Ringelmann’s experiment, as the group increased, the individual performance decreased [1].
Second experiment - Coordination Loss or Reduced Effort:
A second experiment using the same task of clapping and cheering was made but with the difference that the participants couldn’t see each other. They were given a blindfold and headsets and asked to do the same thing as the first experiment: cheer and clap as loud as they could. They were told that either one other person will shout with him, or all six were shouting together. On the headset, a recording of people cheering was played so the participants could not evaluate their performance. These actions were made to analyze if the performance drop was due to lack of effort or if it was coordination loss. The procedure change was not enough to eliminate their teamwork feeling, or social loafing [1].

Both experiments, with different methodology, presented the same result: as the group increased, there was a decrease of sound pressure produced per person [1].

C) Brainstorming and Vigilance task

First experiment - Brainstorming (maximizing results):
In this experiment performed by Harkins (1987), the participants were divided into singles and pairs. They were instructed to brainstorm as many different uses they could find for a given object (maximizing). Some participants were told that their performances could be evaluated, that everyone had the same object, and others were told that their performances could not be evaluated since it was given a unique object [2].

The results showed that when evaluated, the participants tend to have a better performance in both single and coaction conditions. According to the analysis made by Harkins (1987), the participants in the coaction/pooled output condition felt that their individual performance could not be measured (evaluated), therefore had almost the same result as the coaction/no evaluation condition [2].

Second experiment - Vigilance (optimizing results):
To investigate different criteria of performance, the participants were asked to perform a task involving optimizing the results. The participants were also divided into individual and pairs (coaction), and the task was to report when random signals occurred on a TV screen. Some were told that a computer will track their performance, while others were told that the computer is not working properly, simulating the scenario of evaluation and no evaluation [2].
The results showed that in both experiments evaluation has a great impact on the performance of the participants. On the brainstorming task, they suggested more uses for the given object, and on the vigilance task, they made fewer mistakes. Harkins discusses in the journal about Social Loafing and Social Facilitation, that a plausible reason why coaction (pairs) performance outcome the single’s performance is that working together gave the participants a possibility of self-evaluation, by comparing their performance with his partner [2].

D) Integrative Model of individual Effort on Collective Tasks (CEM)
In 1993, Karau and Williams proposed a method that could predict what key attributes are more valuable in a group, and what would motivate more the individuals in this group. The CEM analyzed and crossed different experiments involving social loafing [3].

Conclusions of CEM [3]:

  • Identifiability only augmented the effort in tasks when individuals thought it was not important or relevant, but in meaningful tasks, it showed no effect at all or even a decrease of effort.
  • The individual’s gender, culture, and preferences are very relevant to the group outcome.
  • When individual behaviors are dispensable to the outcome of the project, it is less likely to have a high level of effort.
  • Good communication within the group members showed to be positive to collective effort when showing the importance of the task, but negative talk has the opposite effect
  • Group structure and members’ roles are important to the group effort. Being seen as important in the group, contribute to enhancing the effort made.

Causes of Social loafing

Many studies and experiments tried to identify possible causes of social loafing, and how to avoid it. Even though the experiments have some limitations and are debatable, the following theories are vastly accepted

  • Group size:
Larger groups have a bigger tendency to loaf. In bigger groups, the individual visibility is smaller, leading individuals to the “hide in the crowd” effect, where individual performance can’t be evaluated so the group members tend to make less effort [1] [3]

  • Evaluation potential:
Individuals tend to loaf less when they believe their performance could be evaluated by superiors. This could also be described as "hiding in the crowd" [2] [3] [4]

  • Task uniqueness:
Individuals seem more motivated when working on unique tasks and have a bigger tendency to loaf in redundant tasks [4].

  • Task interdependence:
Task interdependence falls on the reduction of the evaluation potential. It is not possible or hard to know who did the task, and this could lead to social loafing [5].

  • Task value:
When the task value is high, the group members tend to loaf less. Thus, a high-value task usually leads to a high-value outcome [4].

  • Perceived performance:
Individuals tend to loaf less and engage more in the project when they believe that their partners are not contributing enough due to a lack of abilities [4]. On the other hand, if the individual perceived that their colleagues are engaging in loafing, it is more likely that the individual will also engage in social loafing [3] [5].

  • Group cohesiveness:
Groups where members respect each other and have a certain degree of relationship, have a lower chance to engage in social loafing [5]. Strong group identity is beneficial to diminishing social loafing [6].

  • Reward:
Individuals are less likely to put effort and are less motivated when they believe that they are not being perceived by their superiors. The distribution of rewards (this could be monetary, recognition, or anything that will motivate the team) is beneficial to avoid social loafing [1] [5].

  • Stimulation Redunction:
In simple tasks, individuals tend to get a better outcome result when working alone, the opposite result was observed in complex tasks. In complex task, the overall performance increases when working in a group [1] [3].

Social Loafing remedies

Most organizations have teams running their projects, and it is a challenge for project managers to build up a good team with high performance. Social loafing in projects is not something unavoidable, but there are some measures and actions that could help diminish it.
The leaders have a big role in a project’s success. They can influence their team to work more efficiently by organizing the settings of the operations, setting goals and expectations about the individual and group accomplishments [6].
When building and maintaining a team for a project, some factors can be more influential to avoiding social loafing than others. The following list summarizes those factors [2] [3] [4] [5] [6].

  • Make smaller groups

  • A multi-skilled group can be beneficial to avoid social loafing, thus the task interdependence might be smaller

  • Meaningful tasks

  • Unique tasks

  • Individual responsibility for tasks

  • Group cohesiveness

  • Working with friends or close team-mates can diminish, but not eliminate social loafing

  • Frequent feedback about individual and group performance

  • Monitoring individual and group performance

  • Defining standards and comparative criteria

  • Set realistic goals, but also challenging

  • Motivate individuals, so they feel that their contribution is valuable and important for the project: feeling of belonging

  • Individual and group rewards: it could be intrinsic (personal achievements, career growth, praises, etc.) or extrinsic (raises, bonus, gifts, etc.)

Annotated bibliography

  • Gil, Francisco. 2004. Social Loafing. Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology 3:411–19.

This paper focus on briefly explaining what social loafing is, it goes through some of the first experiments investigating social loafing and does a little summary of the main theoretical explanation about the causes of social loafing: Social Impact Theory; Arousal Reduction; Identification and Evaluation Potential; Dispensability of Effort; Self-Efficacy; The Collective Effort Model (CEM); and Other Integrative Models (Instrumentality, Value, and Equality). It also analyzes the implications of social loafing, and which action could be made to avoid or mitigate social loafing.

  • Harkins, Stephen G. 1987. Social Loafing and Social Facilitation. JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY 23.

In this publication, Harkins conduct two experiments to investigate the correlation between Social Loafing and Social Facilitation. The two experiments were designed to include findings from previous experiments in these subjects. The two experiments were conducted on a scenario that the participants’ performance was evaluated or not. The results demonstrated that Social Loafing and Social Facilitation have a correlation. The combination of the study of those two paradigms could lead to a better understanding of both Social Loafing and Social Facilitation.

  • Latane, Bibb, Kipling Williams, and Stephen Harkins. 1979. Many Hands Make Light the Work: The Causes and Consequences of Social Loafing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37(6):822–32.

This paper goes through two experiments about Social Loafing. People were asked to perform the simple task of clapping and cheering, and results showed that the individual performance in a group decreased a lot compared to when they performed alone. The paper also discusses some of the causes of Social Loafing: Attribution and equality, Submaximal goal setting, Lessened contingency between input and outcome. And they conclude by discussing the consequences for society, and what could be done to minimize Social Loafing.

  • Liden, Robert C., Sandy J. Wayne, Renata A. Jaworski, and Nathan Bennett. 2004. Social Loafing: A Field Investigation. Journal of Management 30(2):285–304. doi: 10.1016/

This journal goes through the definition of Social Loafing, citing some experiments and research made about this topic, and after categorizing the causes of Social Loafing into two categories: the “Individual-Level Antecedents of Social Loafing” and the “Group-Level Antecedents of Social Loafing”. They performed one research involving two companies, their employees, and their direct managers. The research was thorough interviews of employees and managers about their group work performance and comparing the answers of the participants. They conclude that organizations have a crucial role to avoid Social Loafing and made some observations about remedies actions that the organizations could take to avoid this phenomenon.

  • Rutte, Christel G. 2008. Social Loafing in Teams. International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork and Cooperative Working 361–78. doi: 10.1002/9780470696712.CH17

This chapter of the book, International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork and Cooperative Working, goes through the definition of Social Loafing, giving some examples of experiments made about this topic. The focus of the chapter is on the remedies of Social Loafing at the group level: how to keep the team motivated.

  • Williams, Kipling D., Martin Bourgeois, Donal Carlston, Alice Eagly, Rebecca Henry, Janice Kelly, Norbert Kerr, Brian Mullen, Kristin Sommer, and Steven J. Karau. 1993. Social Loafing: A Meta-Analytic Review and Theoretical Integration.

This paper goes through the definition of Social Loafing and analyses all different experiments. The experiments were categorized and grouped according to the task type, complexity, methodology, Theory-relevant predictors. The Collective Effort Model (CEM) is the result of the meta-analysis of all the experiments. The CEM is a tool to generate predictions regarding the interaction of different triggers of Social Loafing.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Latane, B., Williams, K. & Harkins, S. Many Hands Make Light the Work: The Causes and Consequences of Social Loafing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37, 822–832 (1979).
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 Harkins, S. G. Social Loafing and Social Facilitation. JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY 23, (1987).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Williams, K. D. et al. Social Loafing: A Meta-Analytic Review and Theoretical Integration. (1993).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Rutte, C. G. Social Loafing in Teams. International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork and Cooperative Working 361–378 (2008) doi:10.1002/9780470696712.CH17.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Liden, R. C., Wayne, S. J., Jaworski, R. A. & Bennett, N. Social Loafing: A Field Investigation. Journal of Management 30, 285–304 (2004).
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Gil, F. Social Loafing. Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology 3, 411–419 (2004).
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