The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defines social loafing as 'the tendency to exert less effort on a task when working as part of a cooperative group than when working on one's own (Blackburn, 2007 1)'.
The first person to investigate this phenomenon was a French agricultural engineer Maximilien Ringelmann (1861–1931). Ringleman carried out a series of experiments in which students (alone and in groups of two, three, and eight) had to pull as hard as they could on a rope. Ringlemann noted that two individuals pulling the rope only exerted 93% of their individual efforts. A group of three individuals exerted 85% and groups of eight exerted 49% of their combined individual effort. As more individuals pulled on the rope, each individual exerted themselves less (LeFasto & Larson, 2001 p. 77 5).
One of the major advantages of working as a team is that knowledge and experience from a broad level of sources can collectively contribute towards the team’s work. With a larger pool of knowledge and experience, the working group can make more comprehensive decisions and achieve outcomes that individuals may not be capable in achieving alone. However, social loafing is a phenomenon that gives negative influence to the effort exerted by individuals. Karau & Williams 1993 4) suggested that this is a result caused by individuals perceiving their effort as meaningless when they are working in the team, as their effort cannot be personally recognised as the results of the project is collective.
A study conducted by Liden et al (2004 6) suggested that as the size of the group increases and the cohesiveness of the group decreases, social loafing levels increase as well. Although it is impossible to eliminate social loafing as there is no way to force and measure individual efforts all the time, but a common solution used by many workplaces are such as offering incentives, compliments and recognition of outstanding work from individual team members. This is because social loafing only happens when there is low intrinsic motivation. Goal setting, or analysis of outcome would improve on intrinsic motivation of human as they take responsibility to their work, whereas evaluation of team-performance will motivate members to make more effort. [Bootzin, Bower, Zajonc, & Hall (1986 2)]
Some other interesting facts mentioned by Karau and Williams (1993 4) are such as social loafing is more common among men and more likely to occur in groups with participants from individualist-Western cultures than for participants from collectivist-Eastern or oriental cultures.
Case study from an Aviation Accident
25th November 1985, a Continental DC-10 was involved in an airmiss incident with a Piper PA31-350 at Auckland Airport, New Zealand [OAAI report 85-430 7]. Social loafing behaviour was observed as information were not pass on despite through out the ATC operational staff during that period of shift-duty. The information of a B737 on circuit training was not ‘pass-down’ from the tower controllers to the approach controllers in the IFR room. Even the ATC watch supervisor who was in-charge of that shift period was not informed about that B737. During that era, there were no appointed personnel responsible such task, therefore every controller assume that others will do the task of passing on the information as responsibility were shared by several people. A loss of coordination among the controllers resulted in this latent failure. With other latent and active failure in the ATC operation, it eventually led to a congested aerodrome causing an airmiss incident.