Maximilian Ringelmann, a French engineer, studied the performance of horses in 1913. He concluded that the power of two animals pulling a coach did not equal twice the power of a single horse. Surprised by this result, he extended his research to humans. He had several men pull a rope and measured the force applied by each individual. On average, if two people were pulling together, each invested just 93 percent of his individual strength; when three pulled together, it was 85 percent; and with eight people, just 49 percent.  As the number of people increased, the total contribution also increased, but the average contribution per person diminished.

In social psychology, this phenomenon is known as social loafing, or the Ringelmann effect. It refers to a situation where an individual puts in less effort and participates or contributes less when s/he is part of a group.

Social loafing does not occur with physical activities only. It also occurs when you are sitting on your bum and all you need to use is your brain. Most working adults will be guilty of this at some  point during meetings and briefings. In classrooms, the larger the class size, the easier it is to day-dream and slack off. The same applies for project groups and tuition groups.

Social loafing is exaggerated when

1.    The individual perceives that he will have to share his contributions and rewards in the event of success.

2.    He perceives that he will not be singled out for blame in the event of collective failure.

3.    Other members of the group and outside observers cannot easily recognize individual contributions. For example, it is harder to identify individual contributions in a dragon boat race, compared to a 4 X 100m relay race.

So what stops us from putting our feet up and letting the others do the hard work? The consequences. No effort would be noticed quickly, and it brings with it weighty punishments, such as exclusion from the group or vilification. Evolution has led us to develop many fine-tuned senses, including how much idleness we can get away with and how to recognize it in others.

Ok, so if you have to work in a group, how can you minimize social loafing?

1. Keep the size of the group small (no more than 4-5 participants).

2. Choose your team members carefully. They should have different skill sets that complement each other.

3. The number of participants must be appropriate for the task. Optimally, the number of participants should be slightly fewer than that required by the task.

4. Divide up the task into manageable bits, with each team member personally accountable for his own area of responsibility.

5. Set dateline. Generate sense of urgency.

6. Be transparent. Have a feedback mechanism when the team leader / teacher can monitor and feedback on performances real-time.

Sources: various