Social loafing is when a person exerts less effort on a task because others are also involved in that task. There is an inverse relationship between an individual’s effort and the number of people involved.
This is regularly observed in groupwork both in the workplace and education. When team members recognize that they can ‘slide under the radar’ and achieve a strategic reward (such as your weekly payment or a C-grade in the exam) without putting in much effort, they make a calculated decision to reduce effort and glide through.
Causes of social loafing have been attributed to: deindividuation, attributions of others’ performance, something called “sucker aversion,” and the bystander effect (just to name a few).
Social Loafing Definition
Latané et al. (1979) define social loafing as a:
“decrease in individual effort when performing in groups as compared to when they perform alone” (p. 822).
The social loafing phenomenon was first discovered by a French agricultural engineer named Maximilien Ringelmann in the late 1800’s, and referred to as “the Ringelmann Effect” (Kravitz & Martin, 1986).
Research since has investigated the role of gender, culture, and group size on the effect.
Social Loafing Examples
- Stretched and overstaffed: Most people on the team feel the project is overstaffed, so each one tends to spend less time on the project.
- Lack of internal locus of control: Several members of the team believe their suggestions will be rejected, so they feel less motivated.
- Large teams: Because there are so many people on the team, each one thinks their efforts will be overlooked, so they try a little less hard.
- Diluted rewards: The more people who are co-owners of the business, the less share of the dividend each one receives when revenue comes in, so each team member feels like the reward isn’t worth extra effort.
- Lack of team trust: Each person on the team perceives the others as a bit lazy and unmotivated. Since they don’t want to be the one stuck doing all the work, they put less time in on the project.
- Lack of initiative in a team: Everybody on the team just assumed that the project leader would delegate the necessary tasks, so they each waited to be told what to do.
- Fear of blame for failure: Nobody wanted to be blamed for the project’s failure, so they each devoted more time to their other responsibilities.
- Knowing you won’t get credit: Several members of the team knew the project leader would take all the credit for the team’s success, so they felt less motivated and slacked-off a bit.
- Not feeling competent enough: It was clear that some members of the team were very experienced and highly motivated, so a few of the newer members decided to spend their time on projects where they could be more useful.
- Not wanting to stand out: None of the students in the seminar put their hand up to contribute thoughts or ideas because they didn’t want to stand out and embarrass themselves.
- Deindividuation: This refers to a sense of lack of accountability in groups which can cause people to stop thinking about their personal behavior through an ethical framework and instead just go along with the crowd.
- Sucker Aversion: I remember being in a job where my colleague said: 20% of people do 80% of the work. Don’t be one of the 20%.
- Voter disillusionment: Voters may feel as if their individual vote doesn’t matter so they don’t vote. They’re taking democracy for granted. If enough people do this, the disillusionment can change the results of an election.
- Lack of Positive Interdependence: Positive interdependence occurs when group members each have a clear role that needs to be done for the group, as well as them as an individual, to succeed. Without this, social loafing may occur.
- Online Social Loafing: With the rise of remote work, social loafing has been further facilitated. There are even reports of people taking on two full-time jobs at once, knowing they are under minimal surveillance so can ‘loaf’ in both jobs and get two paychecks.
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. In The Workplace (Liden et al., 2004)
Companies consist of individual employees that often work together in a wide range of capacities. This makes the phenomenon of social loafing a primary concern. If people in teams are less motivated and work less, then productivity can suffer tremendously.
Liden et al. (2004) conducted a study involving two large organizations: one that produces computer electronics and one that produces heavy machinery.
Approximately 160 employees filled out questionnaires regarding social loafing that assessed: task interdependence, task visibility, team cohesiveness, and perceived coworker loafing.
The results showed that “…group size was positively related and cohesiveness was negatively related to social loafing” (p. 299).
Contrary to predictions, perceived coworker loafing was inversely related to effort.
The authors suggest:
“…that individuals may attempt to compensate for the weaknesses of coworkers either for their own personal gain…or for the altruistic reason that their efforts to compensate will benefit their less talented fellow coworkers” (p. 299).
2. Social Loafing And Remote Work Teams (Chidambaram & Tung, 2005)
Numerous industries have seen a dramatic increase in remote work. One question of concern is if work teams located in different locations will maintain productivity. Remote work may hinder teamwork, communication efficiency, and group cohesion.
Chidambaram and Tung (2005) investigated the effects of physical location on social loafing.
Over 200 undergraduate business students participated in a simulated task involving a business facing expansion and brand image problems. Teams were tasked with generating solutions to these challenges.
Some groups worked in the same room (collocated teams), while others worked at dispersed locations (distributed teams) that prevented face-to-face interaction.
The results showed that:
“…individuals in the collocated teams, reacting to the mere presence of others, contributed significantly more than their distributed counterparts…However, group performance did not differ between the collocated and distributed teams” (p. 162).
This concept is referred to as the social facilitation effect.
So, although exerted effort was different between together and remote work teams, the overall quality of performance was not affected.
3. The Original Ringelmann Study (Ringelmann, 1913)
Social loafing was originally referred to as the Ringelmann Effect, after the last name of the first researcher to identify the phenomenon (Ringelmann, 1913; Moede, 1927).
Ringelmann’s study found that the more people involved in the task, the less effort each one exerts. Ringelmann offered two possible explanations for this phenomenon.
One was that the effort of the members was uncoordinated so that they were pulling at different times. The other explanation was that each person felt less motivated the more people involved.
Social Loafing and Voter Turnout
According to the Pew Research Center, voter turnout for presidential elections in the United States is significantly lower than many other democratic countries.
Countries with high voter turnouts include Uruguay, Turkey, and Peru, with rates exceeding 80%. While in the U. S. the rate is usually around 50-60% (depending on the year).
There can be several reasons for the lower turnout rate in the U. S., one of them being related to social loafing.
Many voters simply believe that an individual’s single vote is not going to have much of an impact on the elections. This is consistent with the concept that the more people involved in an endeavor, the less responsibility and effort each one exerts.
This is analogous to being on a very large work team. The efforts of any one individual will have a negligible effect on the outcome.
How To Counteract Social Loafing
Given the huge ramifications that can result from social loafing, one obvious question emerges: how can social loafing be stopped?
Finding ways to counteract social loafing can benefit organizations of every size. If scaled upwards across an entire economy, the benefits could become substantial.
Here are some suggestions on how to get the most out of everyone on the team:
- Increase Responsibility: Instilling a sense of personal responsibility for a project’s outcome in each and every member of the team can reduce loafing. This can be done through motivational speeches and incentive programs dispersed individually.
- Allowing Task Choice: Instead of the project leader delegating tasks, it may be better to let individual members choose the tasks they want to handle. This can increase intrinsic motivation and improve morale.
- Goal Specificity: Providing clearly defined goals and milestones will also thwart social loafing. When members understand the objectives they are responsible for, it reduces the likelihood they can make excuses if those tasks are not completed on schedule.
Social loafing occurs when people on a team exert less effort than if working alone. In fact, the more people on the team, the less each one tries.
There are a wide range of possible reasons for this effect.
Some people believe that their efforts will not have an impact. Some people feel that they can hide while others take responsibility. At the same time, some people know others are lazy, so they don’t want to be the “suckers” and do all the work.
The implications of social loafing can be significant. For example, if loafing is pervasive in a business, it will have a dramatic affect on profits.
On a societal scale, if citizens don’t vote because they believe their say doesn’t count, then unworthy leaders can be elected to high offices.
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