Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

When one head is better than two (and much better than three)

November 1st, 2010

Have you ever been part of a group working on something and wondered why you got so little done? All those people, but the productivity just wasn’t there. You may have thought impatiently, Sheesh, I could do better on my own.

You might have been right, too.

the other groupFor a variety of reasons, we don’t generally work as hard in a group as we do alone, a phenomenon called “social loafing”. It was first measured over a hundred years ago by a professor of agricultural engineering named Maximilien Ringelmann. He measured the force exerted by groups of people pulling a rope together and discovered that the total force was always less than the force each person could produce alone.

Many other studies have confirmed the effect and found that as the number of people in the group goes up, the amount of effort each person puts in goes down. In fact, by the time you get to 8 people in a rope-pulling group, each person is pulling only half as hard as he or she would pull alone.

This applies to more than tug-of-war contests.  It’s been observed in people doing other physical tasks (such as shouting or swimming), brainstorming, evaluating information, solving puzzles – you name it.

It isn’t necessarily deliberate – in fact, it’s often unconscious. It happens partly because whether the group succeeds or fails, the individual won’t receive the entire credit or blame, so there’s less motivation to work hard. It’s partly due to anonymity and knowing that even if we slack off, it probably won’t be noticed. Sometimes it’s because there are no set standards for the group. Sometimes there’s a tendency to conform to perceived group norms. And sometimes we think that everyone else is taking it easy and don’t want to be taken advantage of as the only hard worker.

Fortunately, there are a number of factors that affect how much social loafing occurs, so we can sometimes make changes in order to minimize it. For example, social loafing is less frequent when:

As you can imagine, this is applicable in almost any circumstance in which individuals work together on a shared task. If you need your workers or volunteers or canvassers to accomplish as much together as they would alone, keep their groups small and make sure they recognize the value of the work, feel like part of the team, and know that their contributions will be identified and appreciated. Try it next time you’re working in a group and let me know how it goes.

Leave a Comment