Social Psychology Of Group Productivity Research Paper

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Group productivity refers to the degree to which working in a group context either enhances or reduces individual motivation and performance. Group productivity is one of social psychology’s cornerstones. The earliest documented studies in social psychology examined the effects of groups on individuals, and hundreds of laboratory and field studies have been conducted on this issue.

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1. Historical Background

The earliest studies revealed two seemingly opposing consequences of group work. In the 1880s, Max Ringelmann observed that oxen yoked together did not pull plows as fast as would be expected from their individual efforts. In his laboratory, he asked male volunteers to pull on a rope as hard as they could, both alone and as members of groups ranging in size from two to six. He found that as group size increased, group performance was increasingly lower than would be expected from the simple addition of individual performances, suggesting that working in a group could reduce performance (see Kravitz and Martin 1986). In 1898, Norman Triplett noted that competitive cyclists were faster when racing against other cyclists than when racing against the clock. In his laboratory, he demonstrated that children worked harder on a physical task when they were in the presence of other children who were working on the same task compared to when they worked alone, suggesting that working in a group could enhance performance.

Triplett’s work helped stimulate a flurry of studies on what came to be known as ‘social facilitation,’ revolving around the idea that the presence of others could facilitate individual performance. Meanwhile, Ringelmann’s findings were essentially ignored, regarded with skepticism, or interpreted solely in terms of poor coordination of group members’ activities. It was not until 1974 that Ringelmann’s findings were replicated, and not until even later that the motivational component of these findings was examined as an important and reliable phenomenon that came to be known as ‘social loafing.’

2. Social Facilitation

Though Triplett’s findings were replicated early and often, inconsistencies began to emerge across studies throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Specifically, the presence of others, either as an audience or as coactors (i.e., individuals who work on the same task in each other’s presence but who do not combine their outputs into a group product), did not always enhance performance and sometimes reduced performance. Zajonc (1965) devised an elegant solution to this discrepancy. He suggested that the presence of other people increases generalized drive, thereby facilitating dominant responses. On simple or well-learned tasks, dominant responses are likely correct and the presence of others should enhance performance. On complex or unfamiliar tasks, dominant responses are likely to be in error and the presence of others should reduce performance.

Later research has largely supported Zajonc’s view (for a review, see Bond and Titus 1983). Indeed, most researchers now define social facilitation as the tendency for the presence of others to facilitate performance on simple or well-learned tasks but to impair performance on complex or unfamiliar tasks. However, there is an active controversy among researchers and theorists as to why and when the presence of others facilitates dominant responses. The mere presence perspective of Zajonc (1965) and others focuses on arousal and assumes that the presence of other people introduces an element of uncertainty to a situation that leads people to become more aroused and alert, regardless of whether or not the other people present have any interest in what the individual is doing. Cottrell’s (1972) evaluation apprehension theory states that mere presence is not sufficient to produce arousal, but rather that it is the ability of other people to create apprehension about being evaluated that leads to social facilitation. If others are present but are paying no attention to the individual and have no regard for how well the individual performs, performance should not be affected. Finally, distraction-conflict theory (Baron 1986) focuses on attention rather than arousal as the primary mediator of social facilitation. Research has documented repeatedly that the presence of others can be distracting and can divide an individual’s attention between working on the task at hand and monitoring the behavior and reactions of the audience or coactors. Distraction-conflict theory suggests that individuals try to resolve this cognitive and attentional conflict by increasing their effort at the task to overcome the effects of distraction, thereby enhancing performance on simple tasks and reducing it on complex tasks.

Research has found some support for all of these theories. It appears as though mere presence, evaluation apprehension, and distraction are all capable of creating and contributing to social facilitation effects. Arousal levels have been documented to increase in the mere presence of others, and support has been found for social facilitation even when the others present are very unlikely to create any apprehension about evaluation. Arousal does become more pronounced, however, when observers are clearly evaluating the individual. Similarly, studies have shown that social facilitation effects can emerge from situations in which the presence of others creates distraction. Thus, arousal, evaluation apprehension, and distraction can all potentially contribute to social facilitation effects, both alone and in combination with one another (for a detailed discussion of these factors, see Geen 1991).

Research has also documented social facilitation effects across a wide array of settings, tasks, and subject populations. The effect also appears to hold for a wide variety of animals in addition to humans, including armadillos, chickens, monkeys, and rats. In one rather unusual study, the ability of cockroaches to run either a simple runway or a maze was examined either alone, in coacting pairs, or in the presence of other cockroaches who observed from behind a plastic barrier (Zajonc et al. 1969). When in the presence of coactors or observers, cockroaches ran the simple runway more rapidly but took longer to navigate the maze, replicating prior social facilitation research on humans and other animals. Social facilitation has also been widely documented in field settings. As just two examples, social facilitation effects have been documented for gymnastics performance and billiards playing in public settings.

However, although social facilitation effects are well-established, they appear to be somewhat small in magnitude in comparison with other prominent social psychological phenomena and the impact of facilitation on performance sometimes varies across performance measures. Based on their meta-analysis of 241 studies, Bond and Titus (1983) concluded that, on simple tasks, the presence of others increased the rate of productivity but did not improve performance quality. They also concluded that, on complex tasks, the presence of others reduced both the quantity and quality of performance. Finally, they noted that the productivity gains associated with simple tasks were weaker in magnitude than the productivity losses associated with complex tasks performed in the presence of others.

3. Social Loafing

Formally, social loafing is a reduction in motivation and effort when individuals work collectively compared with when they work individually or coactively. In order to study the effects of group context on individual motivation while controlling for mere presence effects, social loafing researchers usually compare individual performance on collective tasks to individual performance on coactive tasks, while holding group size constant across these conditions. In addition, in order to separate motivation loss from mere coordination loss (i.e., poor coordination of group member’s actions), social loafing researchers often employ pseudogroups in which individuals work alone or produce outputs that can be individually monitored by the researcher, but believe that their outputs are being combined with those of others into a group product.

These methodological features were prominent in a highly influential experiment by Latane et al. (1979). Participants shouted and clapped as loudly as they could both individually and with others. While blindfolded and wearing headphones to mask the noise, participants shouted both in actual groups, and in pseudogroups in which they shouted alone but believed they were shouting with others. Participants still reduced their efforts on the pseudogroup trials, even though they only thought they were working with others. Thus, Latane and colleagues (1979) demonstrated that a substantial proportion of the decreased performance of groups was attributable to reduced individual effort, as distinct from coordination loss. They also coined the term ‘social loafing’ for the demotivating effects of working collectively.

Since the late 1970s, more than 90 studies on social loafing have been conducted. Both laboratory experiments and field studies have been conducted, using a wide variety of tasks and examining a range of subject populations. The bulk of the available evidence suggests that social loafing is moderate in magnitude and consistently found across studies. A meta-analysis of 78 studies by Karau and Williams (1993) found that the magnitude of social loafing was comparable in size to that of a number of prominent social psychological effects. Social loafing has been found for a wide variety of tasks, including evaluative tasks such as rating the quality of editorials and poems, cognitive tasks such as navigating computer mazes and detecting visual signals, creative tasks such as song-writing and thought listing, physical tasks such as pulling on a rope and swimming, and work-related tasks such as typing. Furthermore, although national differences are occasionally found in some studies, a number of studies have documented social loafing regardless of participants’ gender, nationality, or age. Thus, social loafing is robust and generalizes across tasks, as well as across most subject populations (Karau and Williams 1993).

However, social loafing is not inevitable and a number of factors have been found to moderate the effect. Thus, studies have found that social loafing can be reduced or eliminated by making individual inputs identifiable, enhancing task meaningfulness or personal involvement with the task, providing individual or group comparison standards, providing incentives for good performance, threatening punishment for poor performance, increasing personal perceptions of efficacy at the task, and increasing the uniqueness of individual contributions (Karau and Williams 1993). Finally, gender and culture both appear to moderate social loafing. In their meta-analysis, Karau and Williams (1993) found that the magnitude of social loafing across studies was lower for women and for people in Eastern cultures such as Japan, Taiwan, and China, than it was for men and for people in Western cultures such as the USA and Canada, although significant effort reductions were still found within each of these groups.

A number of theories have been offered to explain social loafing, of which four perspectives are most prominent in the literature. First, social impact theory (Latane 1981) views people as either sources or targets of social influence and states that the amount of social impact experienced in a situation is a function of the strength (status or power), immediacy (physical or psychological closeness), and number of sources and targets present. On collective tasks, the influence of the outside influence source (the manager or the experimenter) is diffused across all of the group members, making it less potent on collective tasks than on individual tasks.

Second, the arousal reduction viewpoint (Jackson and Williams 1985) builds on social impact theory to suggests that the presence of others actually reduces arousal when those others are co-workers rather than coactors. According to this view, social loafing is the flip side of social facilitation because the presence of other co-workers lead to reduced drive, and therefore to reduced performance on simple tasks but enhanced performance on complex tasks.

Third, the evaluation potential perspective (Harkins 1987) suggests that social loafing arises because individuals can often be evaluated when working co-actively, but are harder to evaluate when working collectively. Thus, individuals can ‘hide in the crowd’ on groups tasks and avoid taking the blame for a poor group performance. Similarly, they may also feel ‘lost in the crowd’ and unable to take credit for a good group performance.

Fourth, expectancy-value perspectives (Karau and Williams 1993, Kerr 1983, Sheppard 1993) suggest that individuals work less hard on a collective task because they feel their efforts will not be instrumental in obtaining an outcome that they personally value. As delineated in detail in a model by Karau and Williams (1993), collective tasks pose unique barriers to motivation both because they create more obstacles to the perceptions of efficacy and instrumentality, and be-cause they may undermine the value attached to the task. All of these theories appear to have some usefulness, with the expectancy-value approach rep- resenting a more comprehensive or integrative approach to understanding individual motivation in groups, and the other viewpoints explaining specific mediators of social loafing quite well, albeit in a more restricted fashion.

4. The Relationship Between Social Facilitation And Social Loafing

Both social loafing and social facilitation are concerned with the effects of group contexts on motivation and performance and yet social loafing suggests that this presence decreases performance whereas social facilitation suggests that this presence increases performance for some tasks but decreases performance for other tasks. Indeed, the very first empirical studies of group productivity by Ringelmann and Triplett documented these seemingly contradictory effects of groups.

The key to resolving this discrepancy appears to be in specifying whether the other people present are coworkers or coactors. In social loafing studies, groups are composed of co-workers who pool their efforts together. In social facilitation studies, however, groups are composed of coactors who work in one another’s presence but do not pool their efforts. Therefore, while both types of studies explore individual motivation in social contexts, they examine two very distinct aspects of group life. Taken together, they suggest that the impact that other people have on an individual’s effort depends on whether or not the individual is actually working with those others on a collective task. Collective tasks have potentially demotivating properties, whereas coactive tasks tend to increase drive, thereby enhancing performance on simple tasks but reducing it on complex tasks. In other words, social loafing research is targeted to collective group work, whereas social facilitation research is targeted to the mere presence of coactors or observers.

5. Future Directions

Existing research on social facilitation and social loafing has revealed many important dynamics of group life, highlighted the conditions under which groups are likely to enhance or reduce individual performance, and provided a number of theoretical perspectives for understanding the dynamics of social motivation. Additional research is likely to provide an even richer understanding and greater guidance as to how groups can be designed and managed to bring out the best in individuals.


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