Many tasks at work are designed to be performed by a group of employees, with the expectation that groups are more efficient and effective than individuals. Yet group performance is not always synonymous with great performance. One reason is that some group members do not work as hard as they should. In these cases, social loafing or free riding is said to occur.
Although a number of definitions of social loafing are available, the one proposed by Steven Karau and Kipling Williams is arguably the most complete. These authors define social loafing as the reduction in motivation and effort that occurs when individuals work on a collective task as opposed to coactive or individual tasks. Collective tasks are those that most people would intuitively call a group task. In collective conditions, individuals work with other group members toward a single goal. Thus, individual performance is pooled to produce the group’s total performance. Conversely, individuals working in coactive conditions work in the presence of others, but each individual’s work remains separate from that of others at all times. People working individually do not work in the presence of others, and their work remains separate from that of others.
Free riding is similar to social loafing, and the terms are often used interchangeably. The term free riding is often employed by sociology and economics scholars, whereas psychology and management scholars tend to employ social loafing to refer to the tendency to withhold effort in group work. The main distinction between these two constructs is the amount of effort withheld, as well as the existence of a group benefit or reward that cannot be denied to any group member (e.g., all qualifying employees are entitled to health benefits regardless of whether they were involved in negotiating the insurance plan). Thus, free riding involves withholding all effort because one can reap the benefits regardless of one’s contribution to the group. Conversely, social loafing involves withholding some (but not all) effort toward the group output; the existence of a public reward has not typically been studied.
Early research on social loafing primarily explored physical tasks (e.g., rope pulling or shouting). Recent research has replicated the basic social loafing effect with evaluative (e.g., rating the quality of writing samples), vigilance (e.g., detecting random signals on a computer screen), creative (e.g., brainstorming or thought listing), and work-related (e.g., completing an in-basket exercise) tasks. In addition, social loafing has been found to occur in both laboratory and field research (including some research conducted in organizations), though the effect size tends to be larger for laboratory studies. The substantial evidence accumulated since the publication of the first modern study on social loafing in 1974 makes it a topic of great interest to both scientists and practitioners—though interestingly, social loafing had already been demonstrated almost a century earlier by Max Ringelmann.
Consequences of Social Loafing
Social loafing is detrimental to group performance and costly to organizations. However, there are also less apparent consequences to social loafing. When individuals are aware that a capable coworker is loafing, they will often respond by reducing their own task-related effort to avoid being taken advantage of (an occurrence termed retributive loafing). However, in some situations, coworkers might increase their own efforts to compensate for loafing. When group members are aware that the coworker in question does not possess the abilities required for adequate task performance, group members will typically maintain high effort and motivation. Similarly, when the task is meaningful to them, nonloafers will work harder to compensate for a loafer’s poor performance (a phenomenon called social compensation). Still, compensating for an underperforming or unskilled group member causes a disproportionate increase in the non-loafers’ workload. In time, this increased workload may be detrimental to their own task performance and may strain interpersonal relationships.
Reducing Social Loafing
Initially, social loafing was presumed to occur because of the coordination problems that often characterize groups. However, research has clearly shown that social loafing is a question of motivation and effort. Given the negative consequences of social loafing, it is not surprising that substantial research has focused on identifying the conditions under which individuals working in collective group settings are less likely to loaf.
Ringelmann first observed that as group size increases, social loafing also increases. This finding is consistent with social impact theory, an early explanation for social loafing, which proposes that individuals are sources or targets of social influence (e.g., when a supervisor urges individuals to work hard). Collective conditions allow for social influence to be diluted across individuals, whereas individual or coactive conditions do not. The relationship between group size and loafing is not linear: Above a certain group size, the addition of members has little influence on loafing.
Loafing is more pronounced when individual performance can be identified or evaluated, either by other group members or by a person in a supervisory position (e.g., a boss or experimenter). Thus, individuals are less likely to loaf when they perceive their efforts or productivity to be highly visible to others. In addition, regardless of whether others can evaluate individual contributions to group performance, simply allowing group members to evaluate their own input (e.g., through the provision of individual or group-level standards) reduces social loafing. The evaluation potential or identifiability model proposes that loafing occurs because collective situations diminish the possibility that individuals’ effort and performance will be clearly distinguishable from their coworkers’ effort and performance. Thus, it is difficult for individuals to be punished for poor performance or rewarded for good performance.
Social loafing is less likely to occur in collective tasks that are highly valued, meaningful, or personally involving. Recall that working on meaningful tasks can even prompt group members to compensate for lost productivity resulting from loafing. In addition, intrinsic involvement in a work task moderates the relationship between employees’ perceptions that their on-the-job efforts are visible to supervisors and the likelihood that they will loaf, such that this relationship is stronger when intrinsic involvement is low. Individuals’ propensities to engage in social loafing are also lower when group members are working on a difficult or complex task compared to a simple task. Finally, social loafing is less likely to occur when each group member has the opportunity to make a unique contribution to the group outcome compared to tasks in which group members make redundant contributions. Thus, loafing is likely to occur when effort is perceived to be dispensable.
Other notable findings show that loafing is less likely if group members perceive that their individual efforts will lead to individual performance, individual effort will lead to group performance, and group performance will lead to group outcomes. In addition, social loafing is less likely to occur when group cohesiveness is high compared to when it is low and when group members are friends rather than strangers. Finally, organizational field studies show that the presence of rewards that are contingent on good performance is negatively associated with social loafing, whereas the presence of noncontingent punishment is positively related to loafing. This research suggests that social loafing is negatively correlated with perceived altruism in the group and affective organizational commitment and positively correlated with role ambiguity.
Collective Effort Model
Although many social loafing models (e.g., social impact, evaluation potential, dispensability of effort) have been proposed, none are truly integrative models, and none accounts for more than a few conditions in which loafing is reduced. To fill this theoretical gap, Karau and Williams developed the collective effort model (CEM). The CEM proposes that social loafing is best understood by combining the motivational principles of the expectancy theory of work motivation with principles drawn from self-evaluation theory. The central tenet of the CEM is that individual motivation and effort in collective contexts will be unaffected provided that a number of contingencies are satisfied.
Following expectancy theory, individuals need to feel that their effort leads to individual performance. For example, employees are unlikely to be motivated if they believe they will be unable to reach satisfactory performance regardless of the effort exerted. Additionally, individual performance must lead to group performance. In collective settings, individuals are unlikely to be motivated to exert effort if their individual effort does not help the group to attain high performance (e.g., if individual effort is redundant with others’ work). Next, motivation will be sustained if group performance is directly related to group outcomes, which must, in turn, be related to individual outcomes. The CEM proposes that group outcomes can take the form of group evaluation, group cohesiveness, or extrinsic rewards. Similarly, individual outcomes can take the form of self-evaluation, feelings of belongingness to the group, intrinsic rewards, and extrinsic rewards. Finally, motivation and effort are sustained when outcomes are valued. Drawing on self-evaluation theory, the CEM proposes that outcomes are most likely to be valued if tasks are important and meaningful to the individual and the rewards are meaningful. Furthermore, some individual differences, such as culture or gender, increase the valence of some outcomes. In sum, extensive empirical and theoretical work indicates that not all collective settings necessarily give rise to social loafing.
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