Group laziness: The effect of social loafing on group performance

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Xiangyu Ying
Huanhuan Li
Shan Jiang
Fei Peng
Zhongxin Lin
Cite this article:  Ying, X., Li, H., Jiang, S., Peng, F., & Lin, Z. (2014). Group laziness: The effect of social loafing on group performance. Social Behavior and Personality: An international journal, 42(3), 465-472.


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Social loafing has been defined as a phenomenon in which people exhibit a sizable decrease in individual effort when performing in groups as compared to when they perform alone, and has been regarded as a state variable. In this study, we instead conceptualized social loafing as a habitual response, given that many people have been found to be susceptible to social loafing in group tasks. We developed the self-reported Social Loafing Tendency Questionnaire (SLTQ) to measure individual variations in social loafing. In Study 1, the reliability and validity of the SLTQ were established in a sample of college students. In Study 2, SLTQ scores significantly negatively predicted individual performance in the group task condition, but not in the individual task condition. Social loafing can also be considered a trait variable, as it was found to modulate group dynamics when it was activated in a typical situation (i.e., being in a group).

Many tasks in our lives require the collective efforts of a group. In general, teamwork is most often associated with positive effects regarding individuals’ efforts and performance (Høigaard, Säfvenbom, & Tønnessen, 2006). However, working collectively may reduce individual motivation and efforts. This is known as social loafing, which refers to the decrease in individual effort that people exhibit when performing in groups as compared to when they perform alone (Latané, Williams, & Harkins, 1979). Social loafing can lead to low productivity and poor group performance.

Social loafing pervades our lives, regardless of task type. When asked to demonstrate physical effort such as shouting, people shout louder and longer when they are alone than when they are in pairs or in groups of six (Latané et al., 1979). Similarly, when making a cognitive effort, such as evaluating a poem ostensibly written by another person, people report putting in less effort and evaluating the work less favorably when they are in a group than when they are alone (Harkins & Petty, 1982). In general, larger groups or male dominance in a group induce a greater social loafing effect (Karau & Williams, 1993). Conversely, group evaluation and reward during group management, as well as increased task difficulty, can reduce social loafing (Mefoh & Nwanosike, 2012).

Individual factors are also of great importance when delineating the nature of social loafing (Smrt & Karau, 2011). For instance, “when individuals high in self-uniqueness work together, they are prone to social loafing” (Huguet, Charbonnier, & Monteil, 1999, p. 124). In contrast, high-need-for-achievement individuals do not loaf when working with others (Hart, Karau, Stasson, & Kerr, 2004). Tan and Tan (2008) found that conscientiousness had a negative correlation with social loafing in classroom project teams. However, it remains unclear whether or not preference for group work induces more or less social loafing behavior in a group setting (Duffy, Shaw, & Stark, 2000; Wagner, 1995).

Many people appear susceptible to social loafing in group tasks (Smrt & Karau, 2011), including 5-year-old children, whose performance in group settings has been found to be affected in different ways by evaluation according to task difficulty (Arterberry, Cain, & Chopko, 2007). It is reasonable to infer that social loafing may be a trait-like habitual response, or a tendency recurring in similar circumstances. Individuals with a high social loafing tendency make less effort and have a decreased motivation when working in a group. Therefore, it is valuable to measure the degree of the group members’ social loafing tendency at the beginning of the group task, in order to effectively predict their efforts and work performance in various situations.

In current measures of the characteristics of social loafing researchers have mainly focused on the magnitude of perceived social loafing in a team, treating social loafing as a state variable. For example, Høigaard (2010) developed the Perceived Social Loafing Questionnaire (PSLQ) to enable athletes to quantify their perception of social loafing in their teammates. Also, Høigaard et al. (2010) developed the Self-Reported Social Loafing Questionnaire (SRSLQ) to measure athletes’ perception of their own magnitude of social loafing. However, these measures cannot be used to predict individual performance in a group task and this significantly undermines their application in real-life settings.

Our aim in this study was to examine differences in individuals’ social loafing tendency by conceptualizing the tendency as a habitual response. In Study 1, we developed the Social Loafing Tendency Questionnaire (SLTQ) and tested its reliability and validity with a college student sample. In Study 2, we examined the relationship between SLTQ scores and group productivity. We hypothesized that SLTQ scores would have a negative predictive effect on group task performance. This means the higher the social loafing tendency, the worse will be the performance in a group task.

Study 1

Method

Participants. Participants (N = 212) comprised 109 men and 103 women recruited from Renmin University of China, with ages ranging from 19 to 22 (M = 20.07, SD = .89) years. Of the participants, 165 completed the SLTQ to demonstrate internal consistency and for exploratory factor analysis (EFA), and 47 – who had actually worked together for their group course work (3-5 people in a team) – completed the SLTQ, and their real team leaders completed the PSLQ to evaluate the members’ magnitude of social loafing. All participants provided informed consent.

Measures

Perceived Social Loafing Questionnaire (PSLQ). The original 5-item PSLQ was translated into Chinese. Higher scores indicate a higher degree of perceived social loafing (Høigaard et al., 2010). Participants respond to each item on a scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). In this study, Cronbach’s α of the Chinese version of the PSLQ was .84.

Social Loafing Tendency Questionnaire (SLTQ). We developed the 7-item self-reported SLTQ to measure individual variations in social loafing. Participants respond to each item on a scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Results

Participants’ SLTQ (M = 15.38, SD = 3.59) and PSLQ scores (M = 9.09, SD = 3.43) were lower than the median levels. The correlation matrix of the seven items for the sample (N = 165) was subjected to principal-axis factoring and oblimin rotation. Two rotated factors (cognitive tendency and behavioral tendency) that were extracted explained 52.77% of the variance among scores. The cognitive tendency items describe covert ideas and motivation closely related to social loafing, whereas the behavioral tendency items measure overt loafing behavior. The results of the EFA are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Factor Loadings for Exploratory Factor Analysis With Varimax Rotation of the SLTQ

Table/Figure

Note. N = 165. a Items reverse scored. Exploratory factor analysis based on total sample.

The SLTQ demonstrated acceptable internal consistency, with Cronbach’s α ranging from .58 (behavioral tendency) to .74 (cognitive tendency), with the total score being .69. Although the Cronbach’s α for the behavioral tendency subscale showed a lower consistency, it may be adequate for a scale with fewer than 10 items (Buss & Perry, 1992).

In addition, PSLQ scores showed a significant positive correlation between total SLTQ scores (r = .40, p < .01) and behavioral tendency scores (r = .48, p< .01). No significant correlation was found between cognitive tendency scores and PSLQ scores (p > .05).

Study 2

Method

Participants. On the basis of data for the upper and lower 27% of the group SLTQ scores (N = 165) in Study 1, 79 participants were invited to take part in Study 2 in return for a small monetary compensation (¥15). They were divided into a high social loafing tendency (HSLT) group (n = 35) and a low social loafing tendency (LSLT) group (n = 44). Participants in these groups were then randomly assigned to complete either a group or an individual version of a uses generation task (Harkins & Petty, 1982). They were required to report as many uses as possible for a newspaper within 12 minutes. Informed consent was obtained from all participants.

Procedure. When participants entered the experiment room, they were told to read the instructions on the computer screen and were then left alone in the room. They were given a cover story that they were required to complete a brainstorming task, which involved reporting as many uses as possible for a newspaper. They wrote these uses on a piece of paper, which was then folded and put into a box. In the group task condition, participants were reminded that they shared the responsibility for the brainstorming task with another person, with whom their performance would be evaluated. In the individual task condition, participants were reminded that they alone were responsible for the task and their performance would be counted separately.

Results

The number of uses reported represented the index of individual performance. A 2 (social loafing tendency: high vs. low) × 2 (task: group vs. individual) analysis of variance (ANOVA) indicated that the social loafing tendency, F(1, 75) = 10.336, p = .002, η2 = .121, and the task condition, F(1, 75) = 127.337, p < .001, η2 = .629, had a significant main effect on the number of uses. A significant interaction was also observed between the social loafing tendency and the task in the number of uses, F(1, 75) = 10.501, p = .002, η2 = .123. A further post hoc test revealed that the number of uses in the HSLT group (M = 10.64, SD = 3.01) was significantly fewer than the number in the LSLT group (M = 18.38, SD = 2.92; t = 2.86, p < .01) in the group condition. In the individual task condition, there was no significant difference in the number of uses between the HSLT group and the LSLT group (p > .05). Furthermore, the number of uses in the HSLT group in the group task condition was significantly fewer than the number given in the individual task condition (M = 29.20, SD = 6.80; t = 2.98, p < .001). The number of uses in the LSLT group in the group task condition was also significantly fewer than that in the individual task condition (M = 29.57, SD = 7.96; t = 2.86, p < .001).

Further linear regression analysis showed that SLTQ scores significantly predicted the number of uses in the group task condition (β = -.81, p < .001) but not in the individual task condition (β = -.24, p > .05). SLTQ scores also explained a significant proportion of variance in the number of uses in the group task condition, R2 = .65, F(1, 79) = 74.38, p < .001, but not in the individual task condition, R2 = .00, F(1, 79) = 1.00, p > .05.

General Discussion

We demonstrated in this study that the psychometric indices of the SLTQ are acceptable and that it can be used to measure individual social loafing habit responses in various situations. SLTQ scores significantly negatively predicted individual performance in the group task condition but not in the individual task condition. These results provide support for the conceptualization of social loafing tendency as a habitual response or a trait variable. For individuals with high social loafing tendency, group settings activate this tendency. This produces a negative effect on group task performance.

Our findings may be helpful for the application of the SLTQ in real-life situations, such as industrial, business, or agricultural production settings, by enabling the development and implementation of an effective management strategy. Moreover, the SLTQ can also be an alternative screening measure, to be used in recruitment for positions in which a high level of cooperation is required.

Our results showed that participants, especially those in the HSLT group, performed significantly worse in the group task condition than in the individual task condition. This finding is consistent with that of Harkins and Szymanski (1989), who found that participants exerted less effort in a group task than an individual task. It is more important, however, that the similarity in the number of uses between the HSLT and LSLT groups in the individual task condition provides strong evidence for the trait nature of the social loafing tendency.

Our findings are significant because we proposed that social loafing might be better considered as a habitual response or a trait variable rather than a state variable. By evaluating the magnitude of the individual’s social loafing tendency at the beginning of the group task, we established effective management. In addition, we tested the validity of the SLTQ in the standard experimental paradigm. This may be helpful for avoiding bias caused by self-reporting.

There are several limitations in this study. First, the sample consisted of college students from one university in Beijing only, and may not be representative of all Chinese college students. Second, because the 7-item SLTQ may not be sufficient to evaluate the social loafing tendency, more items should be added to optimize its psychometric indices. Third, generalization of the findings is limited by the rather small sample size in Study 2, so caution should be used when generalizing the current findings to other populations.

References

Arterberry, M. E., Cain, K. M., & Chopko, S. A. (2007). Collaborative problem solving in five-year-old children: Evidence of social facilitation and social loafing. Educational Psychology, 27, 577-596. http://doi.org/fdcz52

Buss, A. H., & Perry, M. (1992). The Aggression Questionnaire. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 452-459. http://doi.org/cxm

Duffy, M. K., Shaw, J. D., & Stark, E. M. (2000). Performance and satisfaction in conflicted interdependent groups: When and how does self-esteem make a difference? Academy of Management Journal, 43, 772-782. http://doi.org/bnb2dx

Harkins, S. G., & Petty, R. E. (1982). Effects of task difficulty and task uniqueness on social loafing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 1214-1229. http://doi.org/dh7ww4

Harkins, S. G., & Szymanski, K. (1989). Social loafing and group evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 934-941. http://doi.org/cnzhxf

Hart, J. W., Karau, S. J., Stasson, M. F., & Kerr, N. A. (2004). Achievement motivation, expected coworker performance, and collective task motivation: Working hard or hardly working? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34, 984-1000. http://doi.org/d2r6xm

Høigaard, R. (2010). Social loafing in sport: From theory to practice. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller.

Høigaard, R., Fuglestad, S., Peters, D. M., De Cuyper, B., De Backer, M., & Boen, F. (2010). Role satisfaction mediates the relation between role ambiguity and social loafing among elite women handball players. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22, 408-419. http://doi.org/cn7vmh

Høigaard, R., Säfvenbom, R., & Tønnessen, F. E. (2006). The relationship between group cohesion, group norms, and perceived social loafing in soccer teams. Small Group Research, 37, 217-232. http://doi.org/d3pgdn

Huguet, P., Charbonnier, E., & Monteil, J.-M. (1999). Productivity loss in performance groups: People who see themselves as average do not engage in social loafing. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3, 118-131. http://doi.org/cvzxwf

Karau, S. J., & Williams, K. D. (1993). Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 681-706. http://doi.org/d3ch3r

Latané, B., Williams, K., & Harkins, S. (1979). Many hands make light the work: The causes and consequences of social loafing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 822-832. http://doi.org/d68bq4

Mefoh, P. C., & Nwanosike, C. L. (2012). Effects of group size and expectancy of reward on social loafing. IFE PsychologIA: An International Journal, 20, 229-240.

Smrt, D. L., & Karau, S. J. (2011). Protestant work ethic moderates social loafing. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 15, 267-274. http://doi.org/b3mdvx

Tan, H. H., & Tan. M. L. (2008). Organizational citizenship behavior and social loafing: The role of personality, motives, and contextual factors. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 142, 89-108. http://doi.org/d84phj

Wagner, J. A. (1995). Studies of individualism-collectivism: Effects on cooperation in groups. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 152-173. http://doi.org/fvqs8s

Arterberry, M. E., Cain, K. M., & Chopko, S. A. (2007). Collaborative problem solving in five-year-old children: Evidence of social facilitation and social loafing. Educational Psychology, 27, 577-596. http://doi.org/fdcz52

Buss, A. H., & Perry, M. (1992). The Aggression Questionnaire. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 452-459. http://doi.org/cxm

Duffy, M. K., Shaw, J. D., & Stark, E. M. (2000). Performance and satisfaction in conflicted interdependent groups: When and how does self-esteem make a difference? Academy of Management Journal, 43, 772-782. http://doi.org/bnb2dx

Harkins, S. G., & Petty, R. E. (1982). Effects of task difficulty and task uniqueness on social loafing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 1214-1229. http://doi.org/dh7ww4

Harkins, S. G., & Szymanski, K. (1989). Social loafing and group evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 934-941. http://doi.org/cnzhxf

Hart, J. W., Karau, S. J., Stasson, M. F., & Kerr, N. A. (2004). Achievement motivation, expected coworker performance, and collective task motivation: Working hard or hardly working? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34, 984-1000. http://doi.org/d2r6xm

Høigaard, R. (2010). Social loafing in sport: From theory to practice. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller.

Høigaard, R., Fuglestad, S., Peters, D. M., De Cuyper, B., De Backer, M., & Boen, F. (2010). Role satisfaction mediates the relation between role ambiguity and social loafing among elite women handball players. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22, 408-419. http://doi.org/cn7vmh

Høigaard, R., Säfvenbom, R., & Tønnessen, F. E. (2006). The relationship between group cohesion, group norms, and perceived social loafing in soccer teams. Small Group Research, 37, 217-232. http://doi.org/d3pgdn

Huguet, P., Charbonnier, E., & Monteil, J.-M. (1999). Productivity loss in performance groups: People who see themselves as average do not engage in social loafing. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3, 118-131. http://doi.org/cvzxwf

Karau, S. J., & Williams, K. D. (1993). Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 681-706. http://doi.org/d3ch3r

Latané, B., Williams, K., & Harkins, S. (1979). Many hands make light the work: The causes and consequences of social loafing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 822-832. http://doi.org/d68bq4

Mefoh, P. C., & Nwanosike, C. L. (2012). Effects of group size and expectancy of reward on social loafing. IFE PsychologIA: An International Journal, 20, 229-240.

Smrt, D. L., & Karau, S. J. (2011). Protestant work ethic moderates social loafing. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 15, 267-274. http://doi.org/b3mdvx

Tan, H. H., & Tan. M. L. (2008). Organizational citizenship behavior and social loafing: The role of personality, motives, and contextual factors. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 142, 89-108. http://doi.org/d84phj

Wagner, J. A. (1995). Studies of individualism-collectivism: Effects on cooperation in groups. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 152-173. http://doi.org/fvqs8s

Table 1. Factor Loadings for Exploratory Factor Analysis With Varimax Rotation of the SLTQ

Table/Figure

Note. N = 165. a Items reverse scored. Exploratory factor analysis based on total sample.


This research was supported by the National College Students&rsquo

Innovative Program of China (90212061). The authors thank Mr. Weizhen Xie for his comments and advice in the preparation of this paper.

Huanhuan Li, Department of Psychology, Renmin University of China, 1004, Floor 10, Suite D, Huixian Building, No. 59 Zhongguancun Street, Beijing 100872, People’s Republic of China. Email: [email protected]

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