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Ringelmann, Köhler, and the Riddle of Group Performance

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Social loafing:

In the early 1900s, a French agricultural engineer named Maximilien Ringelmann stumbled upon a striking and seminal psychological effect. In exploring the conditions under which humans (and animals) could work most efficiently, he set up an experiment where male participants were asked to compete in a tug o’ war contest. Ringelmann had the participants pull on a rope for approximately 5 seconds individually, then in groups of seven, and finally in groups of 14. Their pulling effort was recorded with a dynamometer (which measured the maximum force exerted). It was found that the male participants exerted the most effort individually, and that that effort diminished significantly and consistently as the group size increased.

This effect became known as social loafing, and it appears in various circumstances beyond tug o’ war contests. Over the years, researchers corroborated this finding in various activities among teams at work; meetings, projects, brainstorms, and maybe even in recreational team bonding activities. Essentially, there is a reduction of exerted individual effort observed when people work in groups compared to when they work alone.

Social facilitation:

But then again, this isn’t always the case. Not too long after Ringelmann’s experiment, a German industrial psychologist, Otto Köhler, asked members of a Berlin rowing club to perform standing curls with a very heavy weight until total exhaustion meant they couldn’t continue. Like Ringelmann’s experiment, this was done alone and then in groups. When in groups, they held a single weighted bar which was twice as heavy for two-person groups and three times as heavy for three-person groups. This meant that as soon as one group member discontinued, the weight of the bar would likely be too much to bear for the remaining members.

Interestingly, the groups persisted longer than their weakest members had persisted as individuals. As such, the group didn’t yield to social loafing whatsoever, but instead enhanced their individual performance when placed in groups. This phenomenon came to be known as the Köhler effect, and in broader terms, “social facilitation”. Again, this effect has been observed in wider examples among teams at work.

From loafing to facilitation:

So, what makes team members loaf and what makes team members facilitate? As we may expect, there has been much work devoted to answer this question wince both phenomena were first discovered in the early 1900s. If you recognise loafing in your team and would like to make the steps towards facilitation, consider these steps:

1. Individual evaluation: Social loafing occurs when people are aware that they can get away with not contributing. This is known as ‘diffusion of responsibility’, which is where a person is less likely to take responsibility for something when others are present. To combat this, individuals in the team must carry their own individual responsibility and accountability. Individual evaluation, as an example to assign responsibility and accountability, has been shown to increase group members’ individual performance and hence move from loafing to facilitation. What’s more, these evaluations need not be carried out by others – increased individual performance has been found to follow from structured self-evaluation processes, too.

2. Social identity: If a team doesn’t feel like a team, it’s inevitable that our desire to perform is likely to be quite low. Establishing a social identity as a group enhances our commitment, motivation and meaning as part of that team. To do this, it comes down to developing positive relationships with our team members and establishing common goals. As humans, we’re naturally inclined to seek out memberships in social groups, and even something as small as a badge can validate a team and consolidate a shared social identity.

3. Organisational citizenship behaviour: When we feel responsible, accountable and connected to an established group, an increase in altruism among members of that group often follows. Team members commit to more actions that will benefit the group, rather than the individual themselves. When this happens, we observe ‘organisational citizenship behaviour’ – and this has been demonstrated time and time again to boost satisfaction, motivation, productivity and wellbeing at work. Once one team member begins acting for the betterment of the group, this often sets a precedent for others to follow.

Looking back, it’s likely we can identify instances of both social loafing and social facilitation in our own work. And now, thanks to years of research, we now know the conditions for each to occur and how they play out. More importantly, a better understanding goes hand-in-hand with more agency, meaning we can take steps to transform our teams from Ringelmann’s into Köhler’s.


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