Social Loafing in Psychology: Definition, Examples & Theory

Key Takeaways

  • Social loafing refers to the concept that people are prone to exert less effort when working collectively as part of a group compared to performing a task alone.
  • Social loafing is more evident in tasks where the contribution of each group member is combined into a group outcome, making it difficult to identify the contribution of a single person.
  • Social loafing can be detrimental in workplaces. When everyone does not put in their full amount of effort because they are part of a group, this can lead to reduced productivity.
  • Factors influencing social loafing include expectations of co-worker performance, task meaningfulness, and culture.
  • The Collective Effort Model (CEM) of social loafing holds that whether or not social loafing occurs depends on members’ expectations for, and value of, the group’s goal.
  • Fortunately, there are several ways to reduce social loafing in order to make groups more productive.

What is Social Loafing?

The Ringelmann effect, or social loafing is a phenomenon which occurs in groups of people that limits the amount of effort that each group member exerts (thus reducing individual productivity).

Social loafing was first identified when French agricultural engineer Max Ringelmann was studying group performance and found that groups (of people as well as animals) did not meet their potential, defining potential as the sum of the maximum output of each individual acting alone.

This effect was re-examined beginning towards the end of the 20th century and has been actively studied since.

Ringelmann’s Rope-Pulling Experiment

The history of the research into the reduction of individual effort in collective tasks—what is now referred to as social loafing—began with a French agricultural engineer called Max Ringelmann (1861-1931).

Ringelmann (as cited in Ingham, Levinger, Graves, & Peckham, 1974; Kravitz & Martin, 1986) was interested in how agricultural workers could maximize their productivity.

Ringelmann found that though groups outperform individuals, groups usually do not perform to the extent that they could if each individual was working at maximum capacity.

For instance, in one study, he had people pull on a rope attached to a pressure gauge and found that the more people pulled, the further below their potential they would perform.

If two individuals separately could each pull 100 units, together they would pull 186, not 200. Eight people working together could only pull 392, half of their sum potential of 800.

Ringelmann (1913) attributed this phenomenon to two sources: coordination losses and motivation losses.

He believed that coordination loss — “the lack of simultaneity of their efforts” (p. 9) — was the main cause of social loafing, but also acknowledged that in some cases, workers lose motivation due to each man “trusting his neighbor to furnish the desired effort (p. 10).


Throughout the 20th century, many studies were published exploring the causes of social loafing.

Expectations of Co-Worker Performance

The social compensation hypothesis posits that people will work harder collectively than individually when they expect their co-workers to perform poorly on a meaningful task (Williams Karau, 1991).

Jackson and Harkins (1985) conducted a study that manipulated participants’ expectations of how hard their co-workers would work and found that individuals who had low expectations of co-workers reduced their own efforts to maintain equity.

This means that social loafing is more likely to occur when working in a group of high-achievers, as an individual may slack off and allow the other competent group members to do most of the work.

Alternatively, individuals may actually increase their collective effort when they expect their co-workers to perform poorly on a meaningful task an effect referred to as social compensation.

Evaluation Potential

Many researchers (Harkins, 1987; Harkins & Jackson, 1985; Harkins & Szymanski, 1987, 1989; Kerr & Bruun, 1983) have utilized the concept of evaluation potential to explain social loafing.

This theory suggests that reduction of effort occurs in collective tasks because group members cannot be evaluated individually; they can “hide in the crowd” (Davis, 1969) as they do not give their full effort.

Social Impact Theory

Latané, Williams, and Harkins (1979) explained social loafing through the Social Impact Theory.

Latané (1981) defines social impact as: “any influence on individual feelings, thoughts, or behavior that is exerted by the real, implied, or imagined presence or actions of others.”

Lantané’s (1981) social impact theory focused on how individuals can be sources or targets of social influence and claimed that in social loafing experiments, there are few sources and few targets, so the effort of each target decreases.

The theory suggests that when individuals work collectively, social influence is diffused across group members, and each additional group member has less influence as group size increases.

Social Impactstates posits that while the impact of others on the individual increases as the number of people increases, the rate of increase in impact grows less as each new individual is added.


Mullen (1983) attempted to explain social loafing in terms of the amount of self-attention that individuals maintain during collective versus individual tasks, but this theory has yet to gain empirical support.

This theory states that working on a group, task leads to a decline in self-awareness, whereby a person becomes less aware of their task contribution within a group and are less attentive to task demands.

Arousal Reduction

Jackson and William’s (1985) application of arousal reduction theory asserts that the low effort of individuals during collective tasks can be attributed to the reduction in a drive that individuals feel when working collectively.

They argue that the presence of other co-workers in a group reduces an individual’s motivation to perform a task.

Collective Effort Model (CEM)

Karau and Williams (1993) published a meta-analytic review of 78 such studies in order to integrate the findings of different scientists from across the field.

The meta-analysis found that social loafing is “moderate in magnitude and generalizable across tasks and subject populations” (p. 700).

Karau and Williams’s meta-analysis presented their own integrated model to explain social loafing: the Collective Effort Model (CEM).

The authors created this model by integrating multiple of the partial explanations discussed above, such as evaluation potential and effort matching. It also incorporated variables such as task meaningfulness and culture.

The CEM suggests that two key elements determine individuals’ levels of motivation when working in a group: their expectations regarding their ability to reach the goal and the value they assign to the goal.

Motivation increases when individuals have high expectations and high value for the goal, and motivation is reduced when either variable is diminished. In groups, each individual’s expectations tend to be low since one individual often cannot predict the outcome of the entire group.

Working in a group can also lead to a low value for the goal. According to CEM, this explains why motivation is low in these cases.

The CEM is supported by Karau and Williams’s meta-analysis; the authors found that variables such as evaluation potential, task valence (intrinsic “good” -ness or “bad” -ness of the task), expectations of co-worker performance, and group size all moderated social loafing effects as the CEM predicts.

For instance, in regard to task valence, “the tendency to engage in social loafing decreased as task valence increased” (p. 696). This fits with the CEM, as task valence strongly relates to the CEM element of the value placed on the group’s goal.

The CEM also backs several implications found in studies throughout the meta-analysis. A few examples include findings that “loafing was greater among men than women, in Western countries compared to Eastern ones, and for simple tasks rather than complex ones” (Forsyth, 2009, p. 298).

Reducing Social Loafing

According to Donelson Forsyth (2009, pp. 296-298), there are several methods that can be utilized to reduce social loafing within groups.

Social loafing can be limited by establishing individual accountability, minimizing free riding, encouraging team loyalty, and by assigning distinct responsibilities for each team member.

Establishing Individual Accountability

One factor that increases group productivity is when group members feel that they are being evaluated individually. Increasing identifiability, therefore, tends to decrease social loafing (Hardy & Latané, 1986).

Minimizing Free Riding

Minimizing free riding is another important step that groups can take to decrease social loafing.

Free riding refers to situations in which group members exert less effort because others will compensate for them, when group members are unable to free ride, social loafing decreases because group members feel more responsibility (Kerr & Bruun, 1983).

Assign Distinct Responsibilities

Assign separate and distinct contributions to every team member. Without distinct goals, groups and group members drift into the territory of social loafing with much more ease.

Setting clear goals helps group members be more productive and decrease social loafing (Harkins & Szymanski, 1989). The goals also must be attainable; they should not be too easy but also not too difficult.

Encouraging Team Loyalty

Another factor that can greatly affect the presence of social loafing is involvement in the group. When group members feel involved and invested in the group, they tend to be more productive (Stark, Shaw, & Duffy, 2007).

So, increasing involvement in the group can encourage team loyalty and decrease social loafing.


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Ringelmann, M. (1913). Recherches sur les moteurs animés: Travail de l’homme [Research on animate sources of power: The work of man]. Annales de l’Institut National Agronomique, 2e série—tome XII, 1-40.

Stark, E. M., Shaw, J. D., & Duffy, M. K. (2007). Preference for group work, winning orientation, and social loafing behavior in groups. Group & Organization Management, 32(6), 699-723

Williams, K. D., & Karau, S. J. (1991). Social loafing and social compensation: The effects of expectations of co-worker performance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 61 (4), 570.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Riley Hoffman

Research Assistant at Harvard University

B.A., Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology, Harvard University

Riley Hoffman is a research assistant at MGH Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Harvard University.