By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
Being in a group leads people to adopt certain attitudes and behaviors in order to fit in with those around them. Furthermore, there’s also a pretty natural human tendency to reduce our own contributions to a task when they’ll be combined with those of others in the group. Psychologists refer to this reduced effort as social loafing.
People socially loaf in group settings from the classroom to the workplace to the political arena because they believe they can hide-in-the-crowd and their lack of effort won’t be noticed.
This tendency explains why many students hate group projects; they fear being forced to do all the work while others choose to slack off. It also explains why most restaurants add a set service charge when people are eating out in a group of six or more. Left to their own devices, people in large groups tend to leave lower tips because each person assumes their own meager contribution won’t be noticed and that others in the group will step up to compensate.
Social loafing is especially likely to occur when our own contributions won’t be clear or measurable. Here’s a simple example: When people are asked to clap or cheer ‘as loud as they can’, people who are alone produce much more noise, per person, than when they’re in a group.
Team Performance Vs. Working Alone
Reduced effort in a group setting occurs even in cases where it hurts our own outcome. For example, college swimmers on a relay team swim slower when only the total relay time is announced and faster when their individual times are announced. Social loafing even helps explain why so few people actually turn out to vote, despite the fact that election outcomes have a substantial impact on whether policies they support or oppose get enacted.
In one study, researchers told people they were working on a task that involved monitoring an automated machine to make sure it was running smoothly. In some cases, they were working alone; in other cases, they were working with a partner. Researchers then examined how many problems with the machine people in each condition detected.
In principle, having more people checking the same machine should lead to better outcomes, right? More eyes on the problem should be better. And yet that’s not at all what they found. People who were working alone checked the machine significantly more often and detected almost 90% of the machine failures.
On the other hand, people who were working with a partner checked the machine less often and detected only about 66% of its failures. So, the combined team performance was actually less effective at detecting problems than individuals working alone, suggesting we should be alert for cases when two eyes are better than four.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Social Dilemma
The collective effort model describes factors that let us overcome social loafing. The key factors are whether our own distinct contributions will be identifiable; whether we believe our contributions will make a difference; how much we care about the outcome. People who believe their contributions will be identified, feel their efforts will matter, or care about the outcome are likely to give full effort to a group. Otherwise, watch out.
This same conflict between the individual and the group becomes even sharper in social dilemmas, in which the choice that leads to the best outcome for each individual person creates the worst outcome for the entire group.
Here’s a stark example of a social dilemma. The United States has long adopted a policy of not paying terrorists to release American hostages. This policy is based on the belief that if terrorists learn that capturing Americans pays off, it puts all Americans at risk. Therefore, refusing to pay ransoms keeps Americans safe. It’s good for Americans as a group. But, if you are the parent, or spouse, or child of an American person who is taken hostage, you desperately want the American government to pay that ransom.
In this case, what’s good for you, what may literally save the life of your loved one, is bad for other Americans.
The Common Resource and Public Good Dilemma
Another type of social dilemma is the common resource dilemma. For example, when communities are experiencing a drought, each individual person might want to ignore restrictions placed on their water use—avoiding long showers, not watering their lawn and so. However, if enough people choose to ignore restrictions, eventually that resource will run out and no longer be available for anyone.
The flip side of taking too much of a common resource is contributing too little, known as the public goods dilemma. Donating blood is a classic example of a public good dilemma. If we, or our loved one, needs blood, we expect it to be available. But only a relatively small number of people actually go in and regularly donate blood.
To conclude, however, it is important to note, that, despite the challenge of social dilemmas, group influence is very far from always being a bad thing.
In fact, in some cases people actually perform better in a group setting than they do alone, a phenomenon known as social facilitation. When we’re performing an easy task, something that we know how to do well and feel pretty confident about, the presence of a group seems to increase our arousal or drive. And that extra bit of arousal actually leads us to do even better.
Still, we also know that arousal only helps performance on relatively easy tasks; it can have the opposite effect when the task is new or hard for you. In this case, we actually do worse in the presence of a group than we do alone, probably because the increased arousal caused by the crowd hurts our performance, illustrating what psychologists call social inhibition. This is when playing away from the home crowd can actually be better.
Common Questions about Group Influence and Social Loafing
Social loafing is especially likely to occur when our own contributions won’t be clear or measurable.
The flip side of taking too much of a common resource is contributing too little, known as the public goods dilemma.
When we’re performing an easy task, something that we know how to do well and feel pretty confident about, the presence of a group seems to increase our arousal or drive.