9 Confronting and Preventing Social Loafing

Learning Outcomes

  • Define social loafing
  • Identify the causes of social loafing
  • Understand how social loafing affects groups and their individual members
  • Analyze different factors that affect social loafing behavior
  • Describe ways that social loafing can be confronted and prevented

Groups may experience a variety of ‘difficult’ group members. As discussed in previous chapters, some group members take on roles that distract from the group’s tasks or make it difficult for the group to make progress. This chapter will discuss one of the most common of these in more detail — the social loafers. In this chapter, we will discuss the origins of our understanding of social loafing, its causes and effects, and what we know of variations related to culture and gender. This chapter also offers strategies for confronting and preventing social loafing.

Defining Social Loafing

Black and white photo of men engaged in a tug of war contest in 1904
Researcher Max Ringlemann identified social loafing in an experiment that involved participants pulling on a rope, similar to the classic game of ‘Tug of War’ (Credit: Charles Lucas/1904 Tug of War/Public Domain).

describes the phenomenon that occurs when individuals exert less effort when working as a group than when working independently. Research indicates that there is some degree of social loafing within every group, whether high-functioning or dysfunctional.

In 1913, a French agricultural engineer, Max Ringlemann, identified this social phenomenon. He recognized a collective group performance required less effort by individuals compared to the sum of their individual efforts (Kravitz & Martin, 1986). The effect he noted has been termed the In this experiment, participants pulled on a rope attached to a strain gauge. Ringlemann noted that two individuals pulling the rope only exerted 93% of their individual efforts. A group of three individuals exerted 85% and groups of eight exerted 49% of their combined individual effort. As more individuals pulled on the rope, each individual exerted themselves less. From these observations, Ringlemann determined that individuals perform below their potential when working in a group (LaFasto & Larson, 2001).

Since Ringlemann’s observation, social loafing has been identified in numerous studies. Social loafing has several causes and effects that will be discussed in this document, as well as methods for dealing with social loafing to promote more effective group work. “Ringleman’s brainchild of social loafing has now been used within a diverse variety of studies, ranging from its impact on sports teams to the effects on groups within huge conglomerates” (Patel, 2002, p. 124).

Causes of Social Loafing

Many theories explain why social loafing occurs, below are several explanations of social loafing causes:

  • Equitable contribution: Team members believe that others are not putting forth as much effort as themselves. Since they feel that the others in the group are slacking, they lessen their efforts too. This causes a downward cycle that ends at the point where only the minimum amount of work is performed.
  • Submaximal goal setting: Team members may perceive that with a well-defined goal and with several people working towards it, they can work less for it. The task then becomes optimizing rather than maximizing.
  • Lessened contingency between input and outcome: Team members may feel they can hide in the crowd and avoid the consequences of not contributing. Or, a team member may feel lost in the crowd and unable to gain recognition for their contributions (Latane, 1998). This description is characteristic of people driven by their uniqueness and individuality. In a group, they lose this individuality and the recognition that comes with their contributions. Therefore, these group members lose motivation to offer their full ability since it will not be acknowledged (Charbonnier et al., 1998). Additionally, large group sizes can cause individuals to feel lost in the crowd. With so many individuals contributing, some may feel that their efforts are not needed or will not be recognized (Kerr, 1989).
  • Lack of evaluation: Loafing begins or is strengthened in the absence of an individual evaluation structure imposed by the environment (Price & Harrison, 2006). This occurs because working in a group environment results in less self-awareness (Mullen, 1983). For example, a member of a sales team will loaf when sales of the group are measured rather than individual sales efforts.
  • Unequal distribution of compensation: In the workplace, compensation comes in monetary forms and promotions, and in academics, it is in the form of grades or positive feedback. If individuals believe compensation has not been allotted equally amongst group members, they will withdraw their individual efforts (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005).
  • Non-cohesive group: A group functions effectively when members have bonded and created high-quality relationships. If the group is not cohesive, members are more prone to social loafing since they are not concerned about letting down their teammates (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005).

Effects of Social Loafing

Man relaxing in office with legs up
Regardless of why someone might engage in social loafing, it can negatively impact groups and individuals. (Credit: Viktor Hanacek/Man Relaxing With Legs Up/Picjumbo)

Social loafing engenders negative consequences that affect both the group as a whole as well as the individual.

Effects on Groups

As explained in the Ringlemann Effect, output decreases with increased group membership, due to social loafing. This effect is demonstrated in another study by Latane, et al. (1979). In this experiment, subjects were asked to yell or clap as loudly as possible. As in Ringlemann’s study, the overall loudness increased while individual output decreased. People averaged 3.7 dynes/sq cm individually, 2.6 in pairs, 1.8 in a group of four, and 1.5 in a group of six. In this study, there was no block effect (indicating tiredness or lack of practice). Due to social loafing, the average output for each individual decreases due to the perception that others in the group are not putting forth as much effort as the individual.

In considering this first experiment, some individuals suggested that results might be invalid due to acoustics (i.e., voices canceling each other out or voices not synchronized). To disprove this theory, another experiment was performed. For this study, participants were placed in individual rooms and wore headphones. In repeated trials, these participants were told they were either shouting alone or as part of a group. The results demonstrated the same trend as in the first experiment–individual performance decreased as group size increased (Latane, 1979).

In reality, there are not many groups with the objective of yelling loud, however, the example above illustrates a principle that is common in business, family, education, and in social gatherings that harms the overall integrity and performance of a team by reducing the level of output, one individual at a time. The negative social cues involved with social loafing produce decreased group performance (Schnake, 1991). Reasonable consequences of social loafing also include dissatisfaction with group members who fail to contribute equally and the creation of in-groups and out-groups. Additionally, groups will lack the talents that could be offered by those who choose to not contribute. All of these factors result in less productivity.

Effects on Individuals

The preceding section identifies the effect of social loafing on a group which is arguably the most prominent consequence of the group behavior. However, social loafing also has an impact on the individuals that comprise the group. There are various side effects that individuals may experience.

One potential side effect is the lack of satisfaction that a member of the group might experience, thereby becoming disappointed or depressed at the end of the project. When a member of a group becomes a social loafer, the member reduces any opportunity he might have had to grow in his ability and knowledge. Today, many college-level classes focus on group projects. The ability for an individual to participate in social loafing increases as the group increases in number. However, if these groups remain small the individual will not have the opportunity to become invisible to the group and their lack of input will be readily evident. The lack of identifiability in a group is a psychological production that has been documented in several studies (Carron, Burke & Prapavessis, 2004).

Social loafing can also negatively impact individuals in the group who perform the bulk of the work. For example, in schoolwork teams are often comprised of children of varying capacities. Without individual accountability, often only one or a few group members will do most of the work to make up for what the other students lack. Cheri Yecke (2004), Minnesota’s commissioner of education, explains that in these instances group work can be detrimental to the student(s) who feel resentment and frustration from carrying the weight of the work. Yecke (2004) recounted an experience of one child who felt she had to “slow down the pace of her learning and that she could not challenge the group, or she would be punished” with a lower grade than desired. Especially in situations where members of the group of differing abilities, social loafing negatively affects group members who carry the weight of the group.

Variation in Social LoafinG

Researchers have suggested there may be variation in social loafing by culture and gender, although further research is needed.


Social loafing is more likely to occur in societies where the focus is on the individual rather than the group. This phenomenon was observed in a study comparing American managers () to Chinese managers (). Researchers found that social loafing occurred with the American managers while there was no such occurrence with the Chinese managers. The researchers explained this through a comparison between collectivistic and individualistic orientations.

As discussed in an earlier chapter, collectivistic orientation places group goals and collective action ahead of self-interests. This reinforces the participants’ desires to pursue group goals to benefit the group. People from this orientation view their individual actions as an important contribution to the group’s well-being. They also gain satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment from group outcomes. Further, collectivists anticipate that other group members will contribute to the groups’ performance and so they choose to do the same in return. They view their contributions to group accomplishments as important and role-defined (Earley, 1989).

In contrast, an individualist’s motive is focused on self-interest. Actions by these individuals emphasize personal gain and rewards based on their particular accomplishments. An individualist anticipates rewards contingent on individual performance. Contribution toward achieving collective goals is inconsistent with the self-interest motive unless differential awards are made by the group. Individuals whose contributions to group output go unnoticed have little incentive to contribute since they can “loaf” without fear of consequences. As a result, an individualist can maximize personal gain without putting forth as much effort as had he/she done the work individually. The self-interest motive stresses individual outcomes and gain over the collective good (Earley, 1989).


The few studies that have looked at gender and social loafing have recorded different levels of social loafing between men and women, with men more inclined to social loaf than women (Kerr, 1983, Kugihara, 1999; Stark, Shaw, & Duff, 2007). Some have suggested that due to the ways they have been socialized women tend to be more inclined to sustain group cohesion where men are more interested in task achievement. As a result, women, who deem collective tasks more significant than individual tasks, are less likely to engage in social loafing than men. This phenomenon is demonstrated in a study conducted by Naoki Kugihara (1999). To determine the social loafing effect on men versus women, he had 18 Japanese men and 18 Japanese women pull on a rope, similar to the Ringlemann experiment. On the questionnaire, several participants indicated their perception that they pulled with their full strength. However, Kugihara (1999) observed the men did decrease their effort once involved in collective rope pulling. Conversely, the women did not show a change in effort once involved collectively.  Stark, Shaw, and Duff (2007) found consistent differences in social loafing by gender in both self and peer-evaluations among U.S. college students, with those identifying as women reporting lower levels of social loafing. They call for further research to understand the role of gender in social loafing.

Confronting the Social Loafer

No one ever likes to be confronted or told what to do. So in a group setting, what is the best way to make the most out of each individual’s contributions? Especially in groups where there is no designated leader, it is difficult for one group member to confront another. However, Rothwell (2004) offers advice for handling these situations:

  • Private consultation: The team leader or a selected team member should consult the social loafer individually. This individual should solicit the reasons for the perceived lack of effort. Perhaps there may be more going on than may be apparent at first glance. Additionally, the loafer should be encouraged to participate and understand the importance of his or her contributions.
  • Group discussion: The entire group can address the problem to the dissenting team member and specifically address the problem(s) they have observed. They should attempt to resolve the problem and refrain from deleterious attacks on the individual. Revisiting a group contract and making changes or adjustments to that contract may be a way to build new structures that better support the group and the individual.
  • Superior assistance: After trying to address the problem with the individual both privately and as a group, group members should seek the advice of a superior, whether it be a teacher, boss, or another authority figure. Where possible, group members should provide documented evidence of the loafing engaged by the individual (De Vita, 2001). The person in authority can directly address the problem with the team member or serve in a mediating role between members.
  • Exclusion: The loafer should only be booted out of the group as a last resort. However, this option may not be feasible in some instances.
  • Circumvention: If all the above steps have been attempted without result, then the group can reorganize tasks and responsibilities. This should be done in a manner that will result in a desirable outcome whether or not the loafer contributes (Rothwell, 2004).

Preventing Social Loafing

To prevent or limit the effects of social loafing, there are several guidelines a team might initiate to manage team members’ efforts toward team goals. Though some do depend upon the nature of the team and the type of team, most of these guidelines can be adapted to provide a positive benefit to all teams. You will find that most of them should sound familiar by this point.

  • Write a team contract:  Confusion and miscommunication can cause social loafing. Although it may seem formal, writing a team contract is a good first step in setting group rules and preventing social loafing. This contract should include several important pieces of information such as group expectations, individual responsibilities, forms of group communication, and methods of discipline. If each group member has a measurable responsibility that they alone are accountable for, the member is not able to rely on the group for his portion of responsibility. Setting rules at the beginning will help all team members achieve the team objectives and performance goals. Establishing ground rules can help to prevent social loafing and free-riding behaviors by providing assurances that free-riding attempts will be dealt with (Cox & Brobrowski, 2000). Be sure to discuss the consequences of not following rules and the process to call an individual on their negative behavior.
  • Create appropriate group sizes: Whenever possible, minimize the number of people within a group. The fewer people available to diffuse responsibility to, the less likely social loafing will occur. Also, do not create or allow a team to undertake a two-man job. For example, municipal maintenance crews might have crew members standing around watching one or two individuals work. Does that job really require that many crew members?
  • Establish individual accountability: This is critical for initial assignments that set the stage for the rest of the task. Tasks that require pre-work and input from all group members produce a set of dynamics that largely prevent social loafing from happening in the first place. If this expectation is set early, individuals will avoid the consequences of being held accountable for poor work.
  • Specifically define the task: Clarify the importance of the task to the team and assign members to do particular assignments. Establish expectations through specific measurable and observable outcomes, such as due dates. At the end of each meeting, refresh everyone’s memories as to who is required to do what by when and offer clarification on required duties.
  • Create personal relationships: Provide opportunities for members to socialize and establish trusting relationships. Dedicated relationships cause people to fulfill their duties more efficiently.
  • Manage discussions: Ensure that all team members have the opportunity to speak. Make every individual feel they have a valuable role on the team and their input is important to group success.
  • Engage individuals: When intrinsic involvement in the task is high, workers may feel that their efforts are very important for the success of the group and thus may be unlikely to engage in social loafing even if the task visibility is low.
  • Highlight achievement: Open or close meetings by summarizing members’ and the group’s successes. Create a culture that recognizes and celebrates “wins” and task accomplishments.
  • Evaluate progress: Meet individually with team members to assess their successes and areas of improvement. Discuss ways in which the team may provide additional support so the task may be completed. When possible, develop an evaluation based on an individual contribution. This can be accomplished through individual group members’ peer evaluations of others on the team.

Review & Reflection Questions

  • Why do group members engage in social loafing?
  • Discuss past experiences with social loafing. What effects did it have on your group?
  • What could you do in current and future groups to prevent social loafing?


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Author & Attribution

This chapter is adapted from “Social Loafing” in the book Managing Groups and Teams from Wikibooks. The content is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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Confronting and Preventing Social Loafing Copyright © 2020 by Jasmine R. Linabary, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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