Why do people act differently in group tasks?

Last week http://scied88.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/group-work/ discussed group work in education. This inspired me to expand on the use of group work in schools, but instead, I am going to focus on the way people behave when they are involved in group work.  Although people act differently in group tasks, I do believe that group work in education should be supported!

Think back to when you have been asked to work in a group, the group is formed of people showing different behaviours; there’s usually at least one person who doesn’t pull their weight and others who get stressed and have to do loads of work due to this. Why do we act like this when involved with group work, and how does this affect the way we learn?

Ringelmann (1913) noticed that when individuals were placed in a group, their individual efforts decreased as the group size increased, it is considered that this is due to motivation loss. This loss of motivation has been termed social loafing (Latane, Williams & Harkins 1979) and could explain why some people don’t pull their weight in group activities. It is suggested that social loafing occurs because the individuals within the group feel as though they can get away with not putting much effort into the task because everyone else in the group are working hard anyway. Geen (1991) suggests three reasons for why people loaf:

1 – output equity, people think everyone else is loafing so don’t want to be a ‘sucker’

2 – evaluation apprehension, they are hidden within the group so think no one may actually notice if they haven’t contributed

3 – Matching to standard, they don’t know how to behave as don’t have any standards to match

Social loafing could affect the way students learn because, well simply, they aren’t actually doing any work!  Both points 1 and 2 could be helped by  ensuring that teachers are supervising to make sure every child is working – possibly a work check list could be used so kids have to sign who has done what. To solve point 3, Goethals and Darley (1987) suggest including a clear performance standard so the group members know what standard to match.

What about the group members who do contribute? What are their reasons for working hard?

A study by Zaccaro (1984) revealed that some individuals actually exceeded their individual potential when they were put into groups. The psychology behind the people who ensure the work gets done is considered to be due to ‘social compensation’! This term is when people work harder in groups in order to compensate for the social loafers (William & karau, 1991). Another reason why individual’s may work harder in groups is  purely because they don’t want to look bad as they like the people in the group and don’t want to let them down (Fielding & Hogg, 2000). This could benefit students because the social compensators will see their full potential and realise their true ability! It also improves children’s social skills as they learn that sometimes they will have to be responsible for the sake of others too.

Considering the way we act when put in groups – why do you think schools and education practises still encourage group work? Well group work in education is considered an effective method to motivate students to work hard, to develop their critical thinking, communication and decision-making skills (Centre for Teaching Excellence*). For schools, group work helps children learn how different people work and it teaches them how to compromise with others, how to deal with petty arguments as well as helping them make progress in the chosen study area (an article I found on the Gaurdian told me so!**).  It could also be suggested that group work also gives children an idea of different types of personalities and also that sometimes you have to work harder in order to get a task complete. It may also encourage children to realise that they have to work hard in groups because if they don’t they will let everybody else down.

To conclude, despite the way some people will behave when doing group work; I think that group work should be encouraged in education; especially schools! As it teaches children how to cooperate with others and develops many skills for them. Also the more group work is encouraged, perhaps the less social-loafing will occur, especially if solutions are put in place to try and prevent social loafing (such as teacher supervision and clear standards to meet).

Comments and questions will be much appreciated 😀

cute team work


http://cte.uwaterloo.ca/teaching_resources/tips/implementing_group_work_in_the_classroom.html *

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2006/mar/31/schools.uk2 **

Fielding, K. S., & Hogg, M. A. (2000). Working hard to achieve self-defining group goals: A social identity analysis. Zeitschrift fur Sozialpsychologie31(4), 191-203.

Geen, R. G. (1991). Social motivation. Annual review of psychology42(1), 377-399.

Goethals, G. R., & Darley, J. M. (1987). Social comparison theory: Self-evaluation and group life. Theories of group behavior, 21-47.

Latane, 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; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology37(6), 822.

Williams, K. D., & Karau, S. J. (1991). Social loafing and social compensation: The effects of expectations of co-worker performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology61(4), 570.

Zaccaro, S. J. (1984). Social Loafing The Role of Task Attractiveness.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin10(1), 99-106.


If you want to find out more or if you are too lazy to read this blog post (and managed to stumble across the video first) here is me presenting this post to my classmates at university. Please excuse me on this video as it was my first attempt I was a little nervous 😦 More to come in the later blog posts so hopefully that will improve 😀


10 thoughts on “Why do people act differently in group tasks?

  1. francesdevine says:

    Hi Sinea 🙂

    I have a question of sorts based around social loafing.

    I’m pretty sure everyone has been in the situation where you are placed in a group of people whom you do not know. Everyone tries to suss each other out, and social loafing normally presumes, more so in high school as nobody wants to be seen as a ‘swat’. Additionally, if the group is not cohesive, members are more prone to social loafing since they are not concerned about letting down their teammates (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005). But what I have noticed more regularly since coming to university is that normally someone will take charge of a group and try to lead them in the right direction for example, assign tasks to group members.

    My question is what makes someone reject social loafing and take up role as the leader of the group?

    • Sinae says:

      Hey Fran, thanks for the comment.

      In response to your question ” what makes someone reject social loafing and take up role as the leader of the group?” I decided to do some research into what motives a person to attempt to lead a group.

      Hemphill (1954) suggest that the general motives behind a leader are need achievement and need affiliation. Need achievement is describing the individual’s consistent attempt to try and succeed at tasks. Need affiliation is their need to maintain or gain good relationships with the other group members.

      So I hope this answers your question, maybe these people who attempt to lead a group reject social loafing as they feel the need to please everyone in the group (and of course by loafing, they won’t please anybody!!!) and also they really want to succeed at the task so the encourage everyone to try and work hard (which may seem bossy!) in order to try and get the task done at its best ability 🙂

      Hemphill (1954) A proposed theory of leadership in small groups.

  2. lilbex23 says:

    Really good blog Sinae. I agree with the fact that group work is an important factor of education, however, I feel that group work should be pushed more in primary and secondary education rather than university. As much as I agree with the fact that modules need to have a varying degree of tasks to enable students to get the best marks that they can, I have a real problem with group work at this level. I’ve found in most groups I’ve been put in (like you said) that one person does absolutely nothing, leaving the others to fight through the work load, yet still give this student a reasonable percentage for having done no work. As well as this, I find that the group always has a leader who takes the view point that they know more than anyone else on the topic, and therefore has a right to instruct (usually not very nicely) the others in what to do, yet moan when its not quite up to their standards! Group work in primary education is important to teach children how to cooperate with other pupils, and master the art of working with children who may not work in the same manner as they do. Research by Bryson (2007) (http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~jbryson/CBRReport.pdf) found that working in groups or individually in a maths workshop made no significant difference to their understanding. What I find important from this finding is that it points out that every student is different, some strive when working in groups whereas others prefer to work individually and get work done their own way, education needs to accommodate these differences and work in a variety of ways to benefit children to their full potential.

  3. Psyched says:

    I have another possibility to explain social loafers, and this is that they lack motivation. Or more specifically they not motivated by affiliation. Affiliation motivation is described as the desire to belong to a group or to socialise in seeking close and warm relationships (Leary and Hoyle, 2009). If a person is higher on the affiliation motive they are more likely to enjoy group work and not be a social loafer as they want to create these warm and close relationships.

    Further supporting this, Klein and Schnackenberg (2010) found that low affiliated participants showed significantly less motivation that high affiliated participants in working with another person and more motivation to working alone. If individuals are low affialitaion motivated they may not want to work with others and this could result in what appears as ‘social loafing’ as they lack the motivation.



    Leary, M, R and Hoyle, R, H. (2009). Affiliation motivation. Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior. Pp 410-414.

    Klein, J, D. & Schnackenberg, J, L. (2010) Effects of Informal Cooperative Learning and the Affiliation Motive on Achievement, Attitude, and Student Interactions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, pp 332–341. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1013, Retrieved from- http://myweb.fsu.edu/jklein/articles/Klein_Schnackenberg_2000.pdf

  4. Steph says:

    I have to agree with lilbex23’s comment that you should not be forced to work in groups at university. Paulia, Mohiyeddinia, Braya, Michiea & Streeta carried out a study on second year psychology students that had to work in groups. They found that the negative experiences of group work were the lack of organisation, commitment and brain storming within the groups. I personally would highly support these findings, we have all been in that socially awkward group where no one wants to speak, share their ideas and group members don’t show up to meetings. I understand that there are benefits to group work but for me I spend more time worrying about who i’m going to be put in a group with and all the negatives than the time I’m actually in a group. Having to rely on other people and other people potentially significantly affecting your grade is unfair if you have an unreliable group. I do however support group work when you are able to pick who you want to work with and how many people are in your group, this way you can have some control and not get a final grade ultimately by chance.

    Paulia. R., Mohiyeddinia. C., Braya. D.,Michiea. F., & Streeta. B., (2007) Individual differences in negative group work experiences in collaborative student learning. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 28(1) 47-58. doi 10.1080/01443410701413746

  5. Ben says:

    There are undoubtedly negative sides to group work, as have been pointed out a few times, but lets not underestimate the positives of group work! Research by Springer, Stanne and Donovan (1999) found that when studying subjects such as Science, Maths and Technology that small group work was deemed successful. It seemed to encourage favourable attitudes towards the subject and learning it, promoted academic achievement and even noted an increase in students persistence with a difficult topic.

    Slavin (1991) also shows that group work can help to increase self esteem and and have a positive effect on students attitudes in relation to the school, other students (including those with disabilities) and improved their ability to work cooperatively.

    Although there are negatives,there are certainly alternative arguments to consider when looking at group work.


  6. scienceofeducation2013 says:

    As you’ve mentioned, there are both negatives and positives to using group work in schools. I think the best solution would be to use group work to get the positives, whilst minimising the negative effects of group work. For example, Williams, Harkins and Latane (1981) found that participants engaged in social loafing (so they decreased the amount of effort put into a task) when they were in a group. However, when they were told that their effort would be identifiable, social loafing didn’t happen – they gave high levels of effort in tasks regardless of whether they were alone or in a group. Similarly, when they were told that their effort would not be identifiable, they gave low levels of effort in tasks regardless of whether they were alone or in a group. This would suggest that social loafing is not as clear cut as some research suggests – it seems that the amount of effort people put into a task depends on whether or not the level of effort will be measured. In terms of education, this could be a very useful way of eliminated social loafing. Teachers could use group work, but monitor student’s involvement in the task, to minimise the likelihood that they will engage in social loafing.

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