Social Loafing

Social Loafing Definition

Social loafing refers to a decline in motivation and effort found when people combine their efforts to form a group product. People tend to generate less output or to contribute less effort when working on a task collectively where contributions are combined than when working individually. The consequence is that people are less productive when working as part of a group than when working individually. Social loafing is similar to the free rider effect, whereby people contribute less to a collective effort when they perceive their contributions are dispensable. This is also similar to the sucker effect, whereby people withhold their contributions to a group to avoid being the victim of the social loafing or free riding efforts of other group members. However, the free rider effect and the sucker effect are narrower terms that refer to specific causes of social loafing. Social loafing is a broader construct that refers to any reduction in motivation and effort that occurs when contributions are pooled compared with when they are not pooled.

Social Loafing History and Modern Usage

Social LoafingSocial loafing was first documented in the latter half of the 19th century by a French engineer named Max Ringelmann who observed men pulling or pushing a two-wheeled cart. Ringelmann noted that doubling or tripling the number of men performing the task did not produce a doubling or tripling of output, that is, two-man groups did not perform twice as well as individual men. More recently, researchers have observed social loafing on other physical tasks such as pulling a rope in a tug-of-war game, generating noise by clapping and cheering, swimming in a relay race, pumping air, and wrapping pieces of candy, and on cognitive tasks such as solving mazes, evaluating an editorial or poem, and generating uses for objects. For example, participants wearing blindfolds were instructed to pull a tug-of-war rope as hard as they could. Although participants believed they were pulling alone in some trials and as part of a group in other trials, in all conditions participants pulled the rope alone. Participants pulled harder on the rope when they believed they pulled alone than when they believed they pulled as part of a group.

Research reveals a variety of circumstances that influence whether people work hard versus loaf. For example, people work hard when offered strong external rewards for a good group performance, when they find the task intrinsically interesting or personally involving, and when they believe low effort will be punished. Conversely, people loaf when they perceive their efforts or contributions as redundant with the efforts or contributions of fellow group members. They loaf when they perceive the task as unimportant. They are more likely to loaf when the task is easy than when it is difficult. Perhaps most important, people loaf when they believe that their contributions cannot be identified, allowing them to hide in the crowd.

Understanding when people loaf requires distinguishing between effort (the contribution individuals make), performance (the product of those contributions), and outcome (the reward or consequences attached to the performance). With this distinction in mind, the various circumstances that influence social loafing can be organized under three broad conditions, and people will loaf when any of the conditions occur. First, people loaf when they perceive their individual efforts as unrelated or inconsequential to a good performance. For example, if a student working on a group project believes that the group will produce a good performance regardless of whether he or she individually works hard, then he or she is likely to loaf. Likewise, if the student believes that a good group product is unachievable regardless of whether he or she works hard, then he or she is likely to loaf.

Second, people loaf when they perceive that the outcome is unrelated to the quality of the performance. For example, if group members perceive that the group’s performance will be rewarded regardless of the quality of the group performance, they will loaf. Likewise, if people perceive that the group’s performance will go unrewarded regardless of the quality of the group performance, they will loaf.

Third, people will loaf when they do not value the outcome. More specifically, people will loaf when they perceive the costs of achieving the outcome exceed any benefits of achieving the outcome. For example, students may understand that a good group project in a class will receive an A, but also recognize that the time required to produce a good group project will impinge on the time they need to study for other classes. Thus, they may loaf because they are unwilling to sacrifice study time for their other classes to achieve a good group project. Notably, the finding that people loaf when contributions cannot be identified also illustrates the third condition. When contributions cannot be identified, individual contributors cannot be appropriately rewarded for their high efforts but also cannot be appropriately punished should they loaf.

Social loafing is often described as a group problem that only occurs when individual members combine their efforts toward a common goal. Indeed, group settings seem particularly vulnerable to social loafing. However, the conditions that prompt social loafing in group settings can also prompt a reduction in motivation and effort among people undertaking individual tasks. Specifically, people will withhold efforts on individual tasks to the extent that they perceive no relationship between their efforts and their performance, no relationship between their performance and the outcome, do not value the outcome, or believe that the costs of achieving a good outcome outweigh the benefits of receiving a good outcome.

Social loafing has often been characterized as a social disease. However, it is a disease with a cure. Managers, teachers, and other people who depend on groups, as well as people working in groups, can reduce or eliminate social loafing by making sure that each of the following conditions is in place. First, people must believe that their efforts make a difference and that their contributions are essential to achieve a good performance. Second, people must perceive a strong link between performance and the outcome. They must believe that a good performance (both individual and group) will be rewarded and that a poor performance will not. Often, this condition requires making individual contributions identifiable. Finally, the outcome must be important to the contributors. Moreover, the benefits of achieving a good performance must exceed the costs of achieving a good performance.


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