Social loafing is a term used in social psychology to describe how during group work, a person may tend to put in less effort than when they are working alone or judged individually .
This leads to the all too familiar experience of a freeloader or an “invisible” group mate in our teams or cooperative projects. Interestingly, these people are more likely to perform better individually. As our world develops, the complexities we face call for frequent collaboration. As such, the concept of social loafing is becoming all the more relevant: What is the psychology behind it and how can we curb it?
How was it discovered?
The phenomenon of social loafing was first discovered by Ringelmann (1913) when he conducted an experiment that involved two groups playing tug-of-war. He observed that when a group of people pulled at a rope unanimously in the game, individual output was significantly lesser if the individual pulled alone . Furthermore, future experiments and studies adapted Ringelmann’s hypothesis and have proven the tendency of lowered productivity in groups .
You may be wondering, how is social loafing any different from free-riding? With reference to Ringelmann’s tug-of-war experiment, a free-rider would not even be putting in any effort, forcing other players to have to take on their share. However, social loafing appears to be a collective reduction of output where everyone still does work but at a lower efficiency. Eventually, this leads to difficulties in identifying who isn’t pulling their weight, especially if there is no redistribution of work .
Why do we “social loaf”?
Ying and colleagues (2014) found that social loafing might be better considered a habitual response rather than a conscious choice . However, there are some speculative theories as to why we tend to “social loaf” in group settings. In fact, social loafing is argued to be a form of moral disengagement. Moral disengagement refers to the process in which individuals convince themselves that they are exempt from ethical practices or standards . In the case of social loafing, individuals can convince themselves to put in lesser work in a group setting.
Some theories in moral disengagement can be relevant in explaining this social phenomenon:
Diffusion of responsibility
In this phenomenon, a person has a lower inclination towards responsibility as they feel that others are equally responsible in the group. As a result, the “social loafer” makes assumptions and judgments on how much effort to put in based on whether other people are responsible for taking action. Hence, this allows the loafer to justify their minimised effort since they can assume that others are available to fill in the gaps.
Attribution to blame
Similar to responsibility, social loafing results in an avoidance of responsibility and hence blame. When results don’t show or when someone takes inappropriate action, blame is either transferred to a third party, or diffused among the group as compared to attributing it to one person. As such, a person may feel less responsible for the mistakes caused by them, as opposed to if the task was only undertaken by an individual. Hence, this reduced level of accountability can lead to lower effort.
This phenomenon describes how in large groups, individual contributions to a large group cannot be easily identified. Hence, individuals are inclined to contribute less when they believe that their effort is difficult to observe in the product of the collaborative work .
Klehe and Anderson (2007) found that difference between cultures may contribute to social loafing behaviour . Individualistic cultures often emphasise the freedom to make individual choices while collectivist cultures emphasise the importance of community and group effort over the individual . As such, it is observed that people from individualistic cultures are more inclined to “loaf”, as compared to people from collectivistic cultures who may be able to work better in groups.
Effects of social loafing
We may have observed social loafing in our everyday lives, for instance, when not everyone pulls their weight in the project. This leads to decreased levels of productivity and efficiency, and ultimately a decline in performance. Furthermore, it can result in conflicts and disagreements, fostering poor relationships between teammates. This can have adverse effects on employee motivation, or worse, a higher likelihood for individuals to experience burnout .
While social loafing may seem disadvantageous, especially for those who end up bearing the brunt of the work, a journal written by Simms & Nichols (2014) found that it is not always harmful . In fact, they highlighted a few benefits as discovered by other researchers. For example, Bluhm (2009) found that social loafing can help the employee to conserve energy and mental resources, proving to be a possible deterrent to burnout when taking on individual tasks . Although the performance may not be optimum when working in a group setting, the employee still performs well individually while contributing adequately to support their team members.
Reducing social loafing
While social loafing is a tendency we may all have, and it may not always lead to detrimental outcomes, organisational leaders can put in place measures to minimise it to improve student or employee well-being .
Assign distinct responsibilities
Harkins and Petty conducted an experiment that demonstrated how individuals are less likely to loaf when they feel the contribution they make is unique, and no other group member can contribute similar skills to the task. This measure directly tackles the problem of the immediacy gap; Individuals may feel more motivated to contribute their share of work when they feel that their work is meaningful.
Increase involvement in a group
In a study done by Stark et. al (2007), they found that group interdependency can lead to lower levels of social loafing. Members work better when their work can be observed by other group members, and when it relies on each other’s effort to be completed. Additionally, having peer evaluation would also deter the social phenomenon .
Assign group tasks only when necessary
Jackson & Williams (1985) conducted a study in which they observed that assignments individuals find interesting and/or difficult can prevent social loafing. They hypothesised that difficult tasks lead to enhanced performance when working in a group and simple tasks were better performed alone. Indeed, in their study, they observed that their results confirmed their hypothesis and that management or group leaders may want to evaluate the difficulty of a task before deciding if it should be completed individually or as a group where possible.
In conclusion, we may subconsciously lean towards social loafing behaviour for a variety of reasons as stated by the moral disengagement theory though it may no always be bad if it is done in moderation. Additionally, organisations and workplaces can take concrete steps to prevent it from being disruptive to the team.
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