Social Compensation

Social Compensation Definition

Social compensation refers to the phenomenon that individuals increase their effort on a collective task (compared with how hard they try when working individually) to compensate for the anticipated poor performance of other group members. People are more likely to compensate when they think their coworkers are not going to perform well and when the outcomes of the group performance are perceived to be important.

Social Compensation Background and History

Social CompensationMany of life’s most important tasks can be accomplished only in groups, and many group tasks require the pooling of individual members’ inputs. Government task forces, sports teams, organizational committees, juries, and quality control teams are good examples of groups that combine individual efforts to form a single product. Social psychologists have always been interested in whether individual motivation, effort, and productivity are influenced by working in groups. Indeed, the first experiments in social psychology dealt with these very issues, including Norman Triplett’s work showing motivation gains when performing alongside other performing individuals, and Max Ringelmann’s demonstration of motivation losses when men collectively pulled on a rope. Research in the late 1960s and early 1970s consistently found that individuals tried harder on tasks when they were in the presence of others (who could be either coworkers or audience members), and this effect was referred to as social facilitation.

Trying harder meant doing better on easy, well-learned tasks, but doing worse on novel or difficult tasks. Research in the 1970s and 1980s tended to find robust motivation losses, a phenomenon known as social loafing. The major difference between social facilitation and social loafing was that with social facilitation, individuals were working in the evaluative presence of others, but in social loafing, they were working on tasks in which they shared contributions with the others. As a result, the presence of others implied less evaluation. Still to be demonstrated, however, were conditions in which individuals would work harder when working collectively than when they worked individually. Lay theories focus on esprit de corps, in which individuals working in collective groups are infused with team spirit and work harder than they do individually; however, there is little evidence that this occurs. At best, highly cohesive teams were simply less likely to loaf.

But consider a classroom situation in which a teacher divides a class into small groups in which each group works on a project for which they share a grade. Social loafing occurs in this type of situation, but under what conditions would a student feel especially obligated to compensate for others?

When People Compensate

For social compensation to occur, two criteria must be satisfied. The first is that individuals must, for some reason, distrust their fellow coworkers to put forth an acceptable contribution to the group task. This can happen several ways. Some individuals are chronically distrustful of others, feeling they cannot rely on others to do their part. Research has shown that those low in interpersonal trust are more likely to compensate on a collective task. Ironically, high-trusting individuals seem most likely to take advantage of a collective task and let others do most of the work. Distrust can also develop when individuals suspect that their coworkers do not intend to exert much effort on the collective task. Social compensation is likely to occur when coworkers indicate their lack of intended effort. Finally, individuals are more likely to socially compensate when they are led to believe their coworkers lack the ability to do well on the collective task.

The second criterion is that the task must be sufficiently important to the individual before he or she will feel compelled to exert greater amounts of effort. If the task is relatively meaningless or unimportant, then regardless of one’s trust level or perceptions of coworker effort or ability, individuals will be most likely to socially loaf. Only if the task is perceived to be important to the individual, and expectations of coworker contributions are low, will social compensation occur.

Social Compensation Limitations and Boundary Conditions

Several factors could affect the likelihood of social compensation as well. The existing research has only examined collective effort in a short-term task (usually less than an hour), in which there is no possibility for exiting the group. Whether individuals will socially compensate for their coworkers if the individual has other options, such as working alone or with a new group, is unknown. Also, even when someone does compensate for coworkers, he or she probably will not do this forever. At the beginning, individuals may be more likely to compensate for others’ poor performance, but if their coworkers keep performing poorly for a long period, resentment is likely to build, and individuals may be no longer inclined to compensate. Finally, social compensation is less likely as group size increases. If the group is large, and the outcome of the group depends on each individual’s contribution, then it becomes impossible in some cases to compensate for the poor performance of coworkers, and individuals are likely to be unwilling to carry the burden of many poorly performing coworkers.

Social Compensation Implications

The factors that lead to social compensation could conceivably aid in understanding and managing group performance, although not without caution. One possible way to reduce social loafing and promote social compensation is to encourage individuals to value the outcomes of the group performance and to simultaneously suggest that their coworkers may engage in social loafing. This strategy, of course, may work initially but, over time, may backfire and lead to resentment or early exit. As yet, little research has addressed the persistence of social compensation over time. More important, perhaps, is the unfortunate conclusion that esprit de corps is still not readily observed, and that to achieve high individual contributions to collective tasks, the opposite must occur: a general lack of regard for one’s fellow coworkers’ willingness or ability to contribute adequately.


  1. Kerr, N. L. (2001). Motivational gains in performance groups: Aspects and prospects. In J. Forgas, K. Williams, & L. Wheeler (Eds.), The social mind: Cognitive and motivational aspects of interpersonal behavior (pp. 350-370). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Williams, K. D., Harkins, S. G., & Karau, S. J. (2003). Social performance. In M. A. Hogg & J. Cooper (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (pp. 328-346). London: Sage.
  3. Williams, K. D., & Karau, S. J. (1991). Social loafing and social compensation: The effects of expectations of coworker performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 570-581.