10. Working Groups: Performance and Decision Making

Group Performance

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the situations under which social facilitation might occur, when it might not, and review the theories that have been used to explain these processes.
  2. Outline the effects of member characteristics, process gains, and process losses on group performance.
  3. Explain the influence of social loafing on group performance.

When important tasks need to be performed quickly or effectively, we frequently create groups to accomplish them. Many people believe that groups are more effective than individuals in performing tasks (Nijstad, Stroebe, & Lodewijkx, 2006), and such a belief seems commonsensical. After all, because groups have many members, they will also have more resources and thus more ability to efficiently perform tasks and make good decisions. However, although groups sometimes do perform better than individuals, this outcome is not guaranteed. Let’s consider some of the many variables that can influence group performance.

Social Facilitation

In one of the earliest social psychological studies, Norman Triplett (1898) investigated how bicycle racers were influenced by the social situation in which they raced. Triplett found something very interesting: the racers who were competing with other cyclists on the same track rode significantly faster than those who were racing alone, against the clock. This led Triplett to hypothesize that people perform tasks better when the social context includes other people than when they do the tasks alone. Subsequent findings validated Triplett’s results, and other experiments have shown that the presence of others can increase performance on many types of tasks, including jogging, playing pool, lifting weights, and working on mathematics and computer problems (Geen, 1989; Guerin, 1983; Robinson-Staveley & Cooper, 1990; Strube, Miles, & Finch, 1981). The tendency to perform tasks better or faster in the presence of others is known as social facilitation.

Although people sometimes perform better when they are in groups than they do alone, the situation is not that simple. Perhaps you can remember a time when you found that a task you could perform well alone (e.g., giving a presentation, playing a video game, shooting a basketball free throw, or making a soccer penalty kick) was not performed as well when you tried it with, or in front of, others. Thus it seems that the conclusion that being with others increases performance cannot be entirely true and that sometimes the presence of others can worsen our performance.

According to the social facilitation model of Robert Zajonc (1965), the mere presence of others produces arousal, which likely induce the individual to engage in a behavior that is familiar. If this familiar behavior/response is correct, the task is performed better, whereas if this familiar behavior/response is incorrect, the task is performed more poorly.

The important aspect of Zajonc’s theory was that the experience of arousal and the resulting increase in the performance of the familiar behavior/response could be used to predict whether the presence of others would produce social facilitation or not. Zajonc argued that if the task to be performed was relatively easy, or if the individual had learned to perform the task very well (a task such as pedaling a bicycle or tying one’s shoes), the behavior/response was likely to be the correct response, and the increase in arousal caused by the presence of others would improve performance. On the other hand, if the task was difficult or not well learned (e.g., solving a complex problem, giving a speech in front of others, tying a lab apron behind one’s back), the familiar behavior/response was likely to be the incorrect one; and because the increase in arousal would increase the occurrence of the (incorrect) familiar behavior/response, performance would be hindered.

Zajonc’s theory explained how the presence of others can increase or decrease performance, depending on the nature of the task, and a great deal of experimental research has now confirmed his predictions. In a meta-analysis, Bond and Titus (1983) looked at the results of over 200 studies using over 20,000 research participants and found that the presence of others did significantly increase the rate of performance on simple tasks and decrease both the rate and the quality of performance on complex tasks.

One interesting aspect of Zajonc’s theory is that because it only requires the concepts of arousal and a familiar behavior/response to explain task performance, it predicts that the effects of others on performance will not necessarily be confined to humans. Zajonc reviewed evidence that dogs ran faster, chickens ate more feed, ants built bigger nests, and rats had more sex when other dogs, chickens, ants, and rats, respectively, were around (Zajonc, 1965). In fact, in one of the most unusual of all social psychology experiments, Zajonc, Heingartner, and Herman (1969) found that cockroaches ran faster on straight runways when other cockroaches were observing them (from behind a plastic window) but that they ran slower, in the presence of other roaches, on a maze that involved making a difficult turn, presumably because running straight was the most familiar behavior/response, whereas turning was not.

Although the arousal model proposed by Zajonc is perhaps the most elegant, other explanations have also been proposed to account for whether social facilitation occurs or not. One modification argues that we are particularly influenced by others when we perceive that the others are evaluating us or competing with us (Szymanski & Harkins, 1987). This makes sense because in these cases, another important motivator of human behavior—the desire to enhance the self—is involved in addition to arousal. In one study supporting this idea, Strube and his colleagues (Strube, Miles, & Finch, 1981) found that the presence of spectators increased the speed of joggers only when the spectators were facing the joggers and thus could see them and assess their performance.

The presence of others who expect us to do well and who are thus likely to be particularly distracting has been found to have important consequences in some real-world situations. For example, Baumeister and Steinhilber (1984) found that professional athletes frequently performed more poorly than would be expected in crucial games that were played in front of their own fans.

Process Losses and Process Gains

So far in this section, we have been focusing on how being in a group affects individual performance. What about the broader question of whether performance is enhanced when people work in groups, compared with what group members would have achieved if they had been working on their own? Working in groups clearly has some benefits. Because groups consist of many members, group performance is almost always better than the performance of an individual acting alone. Many heads are better than one in terms of knowledge, collective memory, physical strength, and other abilities. The group from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that worked together to land a human on the moon, a music band whose members are writing a new song together, or a surgical team in the middle of a complex operation may coordinate their efforts so well that is clear that the same outcome could never have occurred if the individuals had worked alone, or in another group of less well-suited individuals. In these cases, the knowledge and skills of the individuals seem to work together to be effective, and the outcome of the group appears to be enhanced. When groups work better than we would expect, given the individuals who form them, we call the outcome a process gain.

There are at least some data suggesting that groups may in some cases experience process gains. For instance, Weber and Hertel (2007) found in a recent meta-analysis that individuals can in some cases exert higher motivation when working in a group compared with working individually, resulting in increased group performance. This is particularly true for less capable group members who seem to become inspired to work harder when they are part of a group. On the other hand, there are also costs to working in groups—sometimes being in a group can stifle creativity and increase procrastination, for example. In these cases, the groups experience process losses. A process loss occurs when groups perform more poorly than we would expect, given the characteristics of the members of the group.

One way to think about the benefits of groups is to compare the potential productivity of the group—that is, what the group should be able to do, given its membership—with the actual productivity of the group. For example, on a rope-pulling task, the potential group productivity (the strength with which the group should pull when working together) would be calculated as the sum of all the individual inputs. The difference between the expected productivity of the group and the actual productivity of the group (i.e., the extent to which the group is more or less than the sum of its parts) is determined by the group process, defined as the events that occur while the group is working together on the task. When the outcome of the group performance is better than would be expected on the basis of the members’ characteristics (the group pulls harder than expected), there is a process gain; when the outcome of the group performance is worse than would be expected on the basis of the members’ characteristics, there is a process loss. Mathematically, we can write the following equation to express this relationship:

actual productivity = potential productivity − process loss + process gain.

Group performance is another example of a case in which person and situation variables work together because it depends on both the skills of the people in the group and the way these resources are combined as the group members work together.

Figure 10.4 People work together in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons. Groups are sometimes effective, but they are often less so than we might hope. Source: Royal Navy Medics by UK Ministry of Defence (https://www.flickr.com/photos/defenceimages/8179374454) used under CC BY NC 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/); Pulling for their regiment at the Glengarry Highland Games by Jammie McCaffrey (https://www.flickr.com/photos/15609463@N03/8271617126) used under CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/); Dragon Boats by Tom Magliery (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mag3737/14463708096) used under CC BY NC SA 2.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)

Social Loafing

In contrast to the process of social facilitation earlier, there are other instances in which working within a group actually harms performance. In a seminal study of group effects on individual performance, Ringelmann (1913; reported in Kravitz & Martin, 1986) investigated the ability of individuals to reach their full potential when working together on tasks. Ringelmann had individual men and groups of various numbers of men pull as hard as they could on ropes while he measured the maximum amount that they were able to pull. With rope pulling, the total amount that could be pulled by the group should be the sum of the contributions of the individuals. However, as shown in Figure 10.5, “The Ringelmann Effect,” although Ringelmann did find that adding individuals to the group increased the overall amount of pulling on the rope (the groups were better than any one individual), he also found a substantial process loss. In fact, the loss was so large that groups of three men pulled at only 85% of their expected capability, whereas groups of eight pulled at only 37% of their expected capability.

Figure 10.5 The Ringelmann Effect
Figure 10.5 The Ringelmann Effect

Ringelmann found that although more men pulled harder on a rope than fewer men did, there was a substantial process loss in comparison with what would have been expected on the basis of their individual performances.

This type of process loss, in which group productivity decreases as the size of the group increases, has been found to occur on a wide variety of tasks, including tasks such as clapping, cheering, and swimming (Latané, Williams, & Harkins, 1979; Petty, Harkins, Williams, & Latané, 1977; Williams, Nida, Baca, & Latané, 1989), and judgmental tasks such as evaluating a poem. Furthermore, these process losses have been observed in different cultures, including India, Japan, and Taiwan (Gabrenya, Wang, & Latané, 1985; Karau & Williams, 1993).

Process losses in groups occur in part simply because it is difficult for people to work together. The maximum group performance can only occur if all the participants put forth their greatest effort at exactly the same time. Since, despite the best efforts of the group, it is difficult to perfectly coordinate the input of the group members, the likely result is a process loss such that the group performance is less than would be expected, as calculated as the sum of the individual inputs. Thus actual productivity in the group is reduced in part by these coordination losses.

Coordination losses become more problematic as the size of the group increases because it becomes correspondingly more difficult to coordinate the group members. Kelley, Condry, Dahlke, and Hill (1965) put individuals into separate booths and threatened them with electrical shock. Each person could avoid the shock, however, by pressing a button in the booth for three seconds. But the situation was arranged so that only one person in the group could press the button at one time, and therefore the group members needed to coordinate their actions. Kelley and colleagues found that larger groups had significantly more difficulty coordinating their actions to escape the shocks than did smaller groups.

However, coordination loss at the level of the group is not the only explanation of reduced performance. In addition to being influenced by the coordination of activities, group performance is influenced by self-concern on the part of the individual group members. Since each group member is motivated at least in part by individual self-concerns, each member may desire, at least in part, to gain from the group effort without having to contribute very much. You may have been in a work or study group that had this problem—each group member was interested in doing well but also was hoping that the other group members would do most of the work for them. A group process loss that occurs when people do not work as hard in a group as they do when they are alone is known as social loafing (Karau & Williams, 1993).

Research Focus

Differentiating Coordination Losses from Social Loafing

Latané, Williams, and Harkins (1979) conducted an experiment that allowed them to measure the extent to which process losses in groups were caused by coordination losses and by social loafing. Research participants were placed in a room with a microphone and were instructed to shout as loudly as they could when a signal was given. Furthermore, the participants were blindfolded and wore headsets that prevented them from either seeing or hearing the performance of the other group members. On some trials, the participants were told (via the headsets) that they would be shouting alone, and on other trials, they were told that they would be shouting with other participants. However, although the individuals sometimes did shout in groups, in other cases (although they still thought that they were shouting in groups) they actually shouted alone. Thus Latané and his colleagues were able to measure the contribution of the individuals, both when they thought they were shouting alone and when they thought they were shouting in a group.

The results of the experiment are presented in Figure 10.6, which shows the amount of sound produced per person. The top line represents the potential productivity of the group, which was calculated as the sum of the sound produced by the individuals as they performed alone. The middle line represents the performance of hypothetical groups, computed by summing the sound in the conditions in which the participants thought that they were shouting in a group of either two or six individuals, but where they were actually performing alone. Finally, the bottom line represents the performance of real two-person and six-person groups who were actually shouting together.

Figure 10.6 Coordination and Motivation Losses in Working Groups
Figure 10.6 Coordination and Motivation Losses in Working Groups

Individuals who were asked to shout as loudly as they could shouted much less so when they were in larger groups, and this process loss was the result of both motivation and coordination losses. Data from Latané, Williams, and Harkins (1979).

The results of the study are very clear. First, as the number of people in the group increased (from one to two to six), each person’s individual input got smaller, demonstrating the process loss that the groups created. Furthermore, the decrease for real groups (the lower line) is greater than the decrease for the groups created by summing the contributions of the individuals. Because performance in the summed groups is a function of motivation but not coordination, and the performance in real groups is a function of both motivation and coordination, Latané and his colleagues effectively showed how much of the process loss was due to each.

Social loafing is something that everyone both engages in and is on the receiving end of from time to time. It has negative effects on a wide range of group endeavors, including class projects (Ferrari & Pychyl, 2012), occupational performance (Ülke, & Bilgiç, 2011), and team sports participation (Høigaard, Säfvenbom, & Tønnessen, 2006). Given its many social costs, what can be done to reduce social loafing? In a meta-analytic review, Karau and Williams (1993) concluded that loafing is more likely when groups are working on tasks that depend on the summation of individual group members’ contribution. They also found that it was reduced when the task was meaningful and important to group members, when each person was assigned identifiable areas of responsibility, and was recognized and praised for the contributions that they made. These are some important lessons for all us to take forward here, for the next time we have to complete a group project, for instance! 

As well as being less likely to occur in certain tasks under certain conditions, there are also some personal factors that affect rates of social loafing. On average, women loaf less than men (Karau & Williams, 1993). Men are also more likely to react to social rejection by loafing, whereas women tend to work harder following rejection (Williams & Sommer, 1997). These findings could well help to shed some light on our chapter case study, where we noted that mixed-gender corporate boards outperformed their all-male counterparts. Simply put, we would predict that groups that included women would engage in less loafing, and would therefore show higher performance.

Culture, as well as gender, has been shown to affect rates of the social loafing. On average, people in individualistic cultures loaf more than those in collectivistic cultures, where the greater emphasis on interdependence can sometimes make people work harder in groups than on their own (Karau & Williams, 1993).

Key Takeaways

  • In some situations, the situation reduces individuals’ performance in group settings, whereas in other settings, group facilitation enhances individual performance.
  • Although groups may sometimes perform better than individuals, this will occur only when the people in the group expend effort to meet the group goals and when the group is able to efficiently coordinate the efforts of the group members.
  • The benefits or costs of group performance can be computed by comparing the potential productivity of the group with the actual productivity of the group. The difference will be either a process loss or a process gain.
  • Group member characteristics can have a strong effect on group outcomes, but to fully understand group performance, we must also consider the particulars of the group’s situation.
  • Classifying group tasks can help us understand the situations in which groups are more or less likely to be successful.
  • Some group process losses are due to difficulties in coordination and motivation (social loafing).

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Outline a group situation where a group situation led you to perform poorly. What task were you performing and why do you think your performance suffered?
  2. Describe a time when your performance improved through social facilitation. What were you doing, and how well do you think Zajonc’s theory explained what happened?
  3. Consider a time when a group that you belonged to experienced a process loss. Which of the factors discussed in this section do you think were important in creating the problem?
  4. In what situations in life have you seen other people social loafing most often? Why do you think that was? Describe some times when you engaged in social loafing and outline which factors from the research we have discussed best explained your loafing behavior?


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