Social Loafing

Piers YoungThoughts3 Comments

Social Loafing is an interesting phenomenon. From what I can work out, it was first discovered by a German called Max Ringelmann. He had people alone and in groups pull on a rope attached to a strain guage to measure the pull force.

What was surprising was that the sum of the individual pulls did not equal the total of the group pulls. Three people pulled at only 2.5 times the average individual performance, and eight people pulled at less than times the average individual effort. The group result was much less then the sum of individual efforts. That’s what’s called the Ringelmann Effect.

This goes against the notion that group effort and a sense of team participation leads to increased effort. Interestingly, it’s not a co-ordination problem either (like people pulling in different sub-optimal directions). In the 1970’s a researcher called Ingham reran the experiment, but with rope-pullers blindfolded and duped into thinking that others were pulling. A similar drop-off in effort was found.

What’s fascinating here is that the decrease in individual effort has motivational causes. The more people working on something with you, the less you will pull your weight. And that’s not just in tugs of war, it’s in brainstorming[.ppt file], in blogging – in any group activity, however good the communication.

A couple of months ago, Lee Bryant mentioned he felt that the amount of transformational thinking out had dried up abit.

“Back in 2003, my aggregator was full of ideas and what I would call ‘transformational thinking’ – exciting stuff that had clear potential to change the way we live and work. Now, aside from conference reports and notes, some of which continue to inspire (and the now traditional annual posting by Clay), there is less new thinking around. To be fair, this is partly because more of us are focusing on implementing things – doing not thinking – and that is to be welcomed … but it would be refreshing to come across more original thinking in what we blog about.”

That certainly rang some bells. It may just be that new ideas take a long time to germinate, but alternatively, perhaps the perceived lack of new ideas around is an effect of Social Loafing? Perhaps as we feel more connected, and as we try to solve similar problems together, each of us does less? (And perhaps, if left unchecked, that becomes apathy?)

If that’s true, then there’s a motivational problem. There may be more, but three possible causes of people’s loafing and lack of new thinking are that they feel

  • others will do it for them,
  • there are sufficient ideas to be getting on with, or
  • others aren’t putting as much effort in as they used to so why should they.

So how do you mitigate that? It all seems to come down to individual recognition, and making people feel that they are identifiable. There are various ways Billy Blogger can get his “I’m me” fix: server logs, services like Technorati and Bloglines based on trackbacks and comments. But there’s a big hole between server logs and trackbacks and comments (and therefore the services built on top of them).

I read a lot of posts which I like, but most of them I don’t comment on, or don’t blog about or don’t post to And let’s say Billy’s posts are in there. How does he know that I’m giving him any individual recognition?

Well, he could root through the server logs. But a) he might not find any clear evidence that I liked it, and b)if he’s like me he’s find that kind of depressing. (I don’t know what’s spam, what’s accident and what’s genuine recognition, and, to be honest, it’s kind of depressing to find yourself acting in such a self-absorbed manner. ).

What might be better is to have a quick, one-click way for me or any other reader to indicate to Billy that “yes, I read this and thought about it”. They won’t necessarily be good thoughts, and won’t necessarily be bad thoughts. But Billy will get a definite indication that his post has been read and Billy’s contribution has been recognised. You never know, that might just be the chivvy he needs to stop loafing and think that new big thought that excites you.


3 Comments on “Social Loafing”

  1. There may well be!

    From the powerpoint slides linked to above, they made the distinction between loafing and not for other reasons. One of these was what they called evaluation apprehension (fear of being judged) and the other was “production blocking” (missing your chance to say something in the conversation because e.g. you don’t have the confidence to say it). Both of which I suppose I more closely associate with lurking than loafing.

    There were two things I could see that might be fruitful links between the two posts (there are almost certainly more 😉 ):topography and scale. Not sure.

    The topography angle of your post made me wonder whether some people loaf more than others. In the tug-of-war example, perhaps people’s likelihood of loafing differed depending where on rope they were? Similarly in a brainstorming group, or blogging, do the heavily linked nodes (those with more recognition) loaf less, reinforcing your echo chamber effect?

    As to scale, from what I understand of it, the more populous the the network tackling a task, the more loafing you would expect from every node in that network. If group size has an effect on individual output, then what are the effects of group sizes at the 12/50/150 numbers? Are those loafing phase-shifts of sorts? Possibly and very possibly not(!)

  2. If Billy needs to know his posts have been read to become motivated to put the effort in, is this a bit like knowing someone is attached to the same piece of rope as him, even if they are not making a visible contribution to getting somewhere?

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