7.3 Working With Others: The Costs and Benefits of Social Groups

Learning Objectives

  1. Summarize the advantages and disadvantages of working together in groups to perform tasks and make decisions.
  2. Review the factors that can increase group productivity.

Just as our primitive ancestors lived together in small social groups, including families, tribes, and clans, people today still spend a great deal of time in groups (see Figure 7.13). We study together in study groups, we work together on production lines, and we decide the fates of others in courtroom juries. We work in groups because groups can be beneficial. A rock band that is writing a new song, or a surgical team in the middle of a complex operation, may coordinate their efforts so well that it is clear that the same outcome could never have occurred if the individuals had worked alone. However, group performance will only be better than individual performance to the extent that the group members are motivated to meet the group goals, effectively share information, and efficiently coordinate their efforts. Because these things do not always happen, group performance is almost never as good as we would expect, given the number of individuals in the group, and may even in some cases be inferior to that which could have been made by one or more members of the group working alone.



On the left, this picture shows doctors in an operating room; on the right, this picture shows people in a staff meeting.
Figure 7.13. Working groups are used to perform tasks and make decisions, but are they effective?

Working in front of others: Social facilitation and social inhibition

In an early social psychological study, Norman Triplett (1898) found that bicycle racers who were competing with other bicyclers on the same track rode significantly faster than bicyclers who were racing alone, against the clock. This led Triplett to hypothesize that people perform tasks better when there are other people present than they do when they are alone. Subsequent findings validated Triplett’s results, and experiments have shown that the presence of others can increase performance on many types of tasks, including jogging, shooting pool, lifting weights, and solving problems (Bond & Titus, 1983). The tendency to perform tasks better or faster in the presence of others is known as social facilitation.

However, although people sometimes perform better when they are in groups than they do alone, the situation is not that simple. Perhaps you remember an experience when you performed a task (e.g., playing the piano, shooting basketball free throws, giving a public presentation) very well alone but poorly with, or in front of, others. Thus, it seems that the conclusion that being with others increases performance cannot be entirely true. The tendency to perform tasks more poorly or more slowly in the presence of others is known as social inhibition.

Robert Zajonc (1965) explained the observed influence of others on task performance using the concept of physiological arousal. According to Zajonc, when we are with others we experience more arousal than we do when we are alone, and this arousal increases the likelihood that we will perform the dominant response, the action that we are most likely to emit in any given situation (see Figure 7.14).



This chart identifies the flow of the drive-arousal model of social facilitation. Long description available.
Figure 7.14. Drive-arousal model of social facilitation. [Long description]

The most important aspect of Zajonc’s theory was that the experience of arousal and the resulting increase in the occurrence of the dominant response could be used to predict whether the presence of others would produce social facilitation or social inhibition. Zajonc argued that when the task to be performed was relatively easy, or if the individual had learned to perform the task very well (e.g., pedaling a bicycle), the dominant response was likely to be the correct response, and the increase in arousal caused by the presence of others would create social facilitation. On the other hand, when the task was difficult or not well learned (e.g., giving a speech in front of others), the dominant response is likely to be the incorrect one, and thus, because the increase in arousal increases the occurrence of the incorrect dominant response, performance is hindered.

A great deal of experimental research has now confirmed these predictions. A meta-analysis by Charles Bond and Linda Titus (1983), which looked at the results of over 200 studies using over 20,000 research participants, found that the presence of others significantly increased the rate of performing on simple tasks and also decreased both rate and quality of performance on complex tasks.

Although the arousal model proposed by Zajonc is perhaps the most elegant, other explanations have also been proposed to account for social facilitation and social inhibition. One modification argues that we are particularly influenced by others when we perceive that the others are evaluating us or competing with us (Baron, 1986). In one study supporting this idea, Michael Strube, Margo Miles, and William Finch (1981) found that the presence of spectators increased joggers’ speed only when the spectators were facing the joggers, so that the spectators could see the joggers and assess their performance. The presence of others did not influence joggers’ performance when the joggers were facing in the other direction and thus could not see them.

Working together in groups

The ability of a group to perform well is determined by the characteristics of the group members (e.g., are they knowledgeable and skilled?) as well as by the group process — that is, the events that occur while the group is working on the task. When the outcome of group performance is better than we would expect given the individuals who form the group, we call the outcome a group process gain, and when the group outcome is worse than we would have expected given the individuals who form the group, we call the outcome a group process loss.

One group process loss that may occur in groups is that the group members may engage in social loafing, a group process loss that occurs when people do not work as hard in a group as they do when they are working alone. In one of the earliest social psychology experiments, Max Ringelmann (1913; reported in Kravitz & Martin, 1986) had individual men, as well as 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. Although larger groups pulled harder than any one individual, Ringelmann also found a substantial process loss (see Figure 7.15). 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. 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.



This graph contrasts weight by number of men pulling to illustrate group process loss. long description available.
Figure 7.15. Group process loss. [Long description]

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

Group process losses can also occur when group members conform to each other rather than expressing their own divergent ideas. Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group made up of members who may be very competent and thus quite capable of making excellent decisions nevertheless ends up, as a result of a flawed group process and strong conformity pressures, making a poor decision (Baron, 2005; Janis, 2007). Groupthink is more likely to occur in groups whose members feel a strong group identity, such as the Stanley Cup riots of 1994 and 2011 in Vancouver, when there is a strong and directive leader and when the group needs to make an important decision quickly. The problem is that groups suffering from groupthink become unwilling to seek out or discuss discrepant or unsettling information about the topic at hand, and the group members do not express contradictory opinions. Because the group members are afraid to express opinions that contradict those of the leader, or to bring in outsiders who have other information, the group is prevented from making a fully informed decision (see Figure 7.16).



This chart identifies the flow of the causes and outcomes of groupthink. Long description available.
Figure 7.16. Causes and outcomes of groupthink. [Long description]

It has been suggested that groupthink was involved in a number of well-known and important, but very poor, decisions made by government and business groups, including the crashes of two Space Shuttle missions in 1986 and 2003. Analyses of the decision-making processes in these cases have documented the role of conformity pressures.

As a result of the high levels of conformity in these groups, the group begins to see itself as extremely valuable and important, highly capable of making high-quality decisions, and invulnerable. The group members begin to feel that they are superior and do not need to seek outside information. Such a situation is conducive to terrible decision making and resulting fiascoes.



Psychology in Everyday Life

Do juries make good decisions?

Although many other countries rely on judges to make judgments in civil and criminal trials, the jury is the oldest and most fundamental institution of the judicial system in Canada and the United States. The notion of a “trial by one’s peers” is based on the assumption that average individuals can make informed and fair decisions when they work together in groups, but given the potential for group process losses, are juries really the best way to approach these important decisions?

As a small working group, juries have the potential to produce either good or poor decisions, depending on the outcome of the characteristics of the individual members as well as the group process. In terms of individual group characteristics, people who have already served on juries are more likely to be seen as experts, to be chosen as the jury foreman, and to give more input during the deliberation. It has also been found that status matters; jury members with higher-status occupations and education, males rather than females, and those who talk first are more likely be chosen as the foreman, and these individuals also contribute more to the jury discussion (Stasser, Kerr, & Bray, 1982).

However, although at least some member characteristics have an influence on jury decision making, group process plays a more important role in the outcome of jury decisions than do member characteristics. Like any group, juries develop their own individual norms, and these norms can have a profound impact on how they reach their decision. Analysis of group process within juries shows that different juries take very different approaches to reaching a verdict. Some spend a lot of time in initial planning, whereas others immediately jump into the deliberation. Some juries base their discussion around a review and reorganization of the evidence, waiting to make a vote until it has all been considered, whereas other juries first determine which decision is preferred in the group by taking a poll and then, if the first vote does not lead to a final verdict, organize their discussion around these opinions. These two approaches are used quite equally but may in some cases lead to different decisions (Davis, Stasson, Ono, & Zimmerman, 1988).

Perhaps most importantly, conformity pressures have a strong impact on jury decision making. When there are a greater number of jury members who hold the majority position, it becomes more and more certain that their opinion will prevail during the discussion (see Figure 7.17). This does not mean that minorities can never be persuasive, but it is very difficult for them to do so. The strong influence of the majority is probably due to both informational conformity (i.e., that there are more arguments supporting the favoured position) and normative conformity (i.e., the people on the majority side have greater social influence).



This graph contrasts the probability of jury reaching verdict by the number initially favouring guilt.
Figure 7.17. This figure shows the decisions of six-member mock juries that made “majority rules” decisions. When the majority of the six initially favoured voting guilty, the jury almost always voted guilty; when the majority of the six initially favoured voting innocent, the jury almost always voted innocent. The juries were frequently hung — that is, could not make a decision — when the initial split was three and three (Stasser, Kerr, & Bray, 1982).

Given the potential difficulties that groups face in making good decisions, you might be worried that the verdicts rendered by juries may not be particularly effective, accurate, or fair. However, despite these concerns, the evidence suggests that juries may not do as badly as we would expect. The deliberation process seems to cancel out many individual juror biases, and the importance of the decision leads the jury members to carefully consider the evidence itself.

Using groups effectively

Taken together, working in groups has both positive and negative outcomes. On the positive side, it makes sense to use groups to make decisions because people can create outcomes working together that any one individual could not hope to accomplish alone. In addition, once a group makes a decision, the group will normally find it easier to get other people to implement it because many people feel that decisions made by groups are fairer than those made by individuals.

Yet, groups frequently succumb to process losses, leading them to be less effective than they should be. Furthermore, group members often do not realize that the process losses are occurring around them. For instance, people who participate in brainstorming groups report that they have been more productive than those who work alone, even if the group has actually not done that well (Nijstad, Stroebe, Lodewijkx, 2006; Stroebe, Diehl, & Abakoumkin, 1992). The tendency for group members to overvalue the productivity of the groups they work in is known as the illusion of group productivity, and it seems to occur for several reasons. For one, the productivity of the group as a whole is highly accessible, and this productivity generally seems quite good, at least in comparison to the contributions of single individuals. The group members hear many ideas expressed by themselves and the other group members, and this gives the impression that the group is doing very well, even if objectively it is not. On the affective side, group members receive a lot of positive social identity from their group memberships. These positive feelings naturally lead them to believe that the group is strong and performing well.

What we need to do, then, is to recognize both the strengths and limitations of group performance and use whatever techniques we can to increase process gains and reduce process losses. The table below presents some of the techniques that are known to help groups achieve their goals.


Table 7.4. Techniques that can be used to improve group performance
Technique Example
Provide rewards for performance Rewarding employees and team members with bonuses will increase their effort toward the group goal. People will also work harder in groups when they feel that they are contributing to the group goal than when they feel that their contributions are not important.
Keep group member contributions identifiable Group members will work harder if they feel that their contributions to the group are known and potentially seen positively by the other group members than they will if their contributions are summed into the group total and thus unknown.1
Maintain distributive justice (equity) Workers who feel that their rewards are proportional to their efforts in the group will be happier and work harder than will workers who feel that they are underpaid.2
Keep groups small Larger groups are more likely to suffer from coordination problems and social loafing. The most effective working groups are of relatively small size — about four or five members.
Create positive group norms Group performance is increased when the group members care about the ability of the group to do a good job (e.g., a cohesive sports or military team). On the other hand, some groups develop norms that prohibit members from working to their full potential and thus encourage loafing.
Improve information sharing Leaders must work to be sure that each member of the group is encouraged to present the information that he or she has in group discussions. One approach to increasing full discussion of the issues is to have the group break up into smaller subgroups for discussion.
Allow plenty of time Groups take longer to reach consensus, and allowing plenty of time will help keep the group from coming to premature consensus and making an unwise choice. Time to consider the issues fully also allows the group to gain new knowledge by seeking information and analysis from outside experts.
Set specific and attainable goals Groups that set specific, difficult, yet attainable goals (e.g., “improve sales by 10% over the next six months”) are more effective than groups that are given goals that are not very clear (e.g., “let’s sell as much as we can!”).3
Data source: [1] Szymanski and Harkins, 1987; [2] Geurts, Buunk, and Schaufeli, 1994; [3] Locke and Latham, 2006.

Reinforcement in social dilemmas

The basic principles of reinforcement, reward, and punishment have been used to help understand a variety of human behaviours (Bandura, 1977; Miller & Dollard, 1941; Rotter, 1945). The general idea is that, as predicted by principles of operant learning and the law of effect, people act in ways that maximize their outcomes, where outcomes are defined as the presence of reinforcers and the absence of punishers.

Consider, for example, a situation known as the commons dilemma, as proposed by the ecologist Garrett Hardin (1968). Hardin noted that in many European towns there was at one time a centrally located pasture, known as the commons, which was shared by the inhabitants of the village to graze their livestock, but the commons was not always used wisely. The problem was that each individual who owned livestock wanted to be able to use the commons to graze their own animals. However, when each group member took advantage of the commons by grazing many animals, the commons became overgrazed, the pasture died, and the commons was destroyed.

Although Hardin focused on the particular example of the commons, the basic dilemma of individual desires versus the benefit of the group as a whole can also be found in many contemporary public goods issues, including the use of limited natural resources, air pollution, and public land. In large cities, most people may prefer the convenience of driving their own car to work each day rather than taking public transportation, yet this behaviour uses up public goods, like the space on limited roadways, crude oil reserves, and clean air. People are lured into the dilemma by short-term rewards, seemingly without considering the potential long-term costs of the behaviour, such as air pollution and the necessity of building even more highways.

A social dilemma, such as the commons dilemma, is a situation in which the behaviour that creates the most positive outcomes for the individual may in the long term lead to negative consequences for the group as a whole. The dilemmas are arranged in such a way that it is easy to be selfish, because the personally beneficial choice, such as using water during a water shortage or driving to work alone in one’s own car, produces reinforcements for the individual. Furthermore, social dilemmas tend to work on a type of time delay. The problem is that, because the long-term negative outcome (e.g., the extinction of fish species or dramatic changes in the earth’s climate) is far away in the future and the individual benefits are occurring right now, it is difficult for an individual to see how many costs there really are. The paradox, of course, is that if everyone takes the personally selfish choice in an attempt to maximize his or her own outcomes, the long-term result is poorer outcomes for every individual in the group. Each individual prefers to make use of the public goods for himself or herself, whereas the best outcome for the group as a whole is to use the resources more slowly and wisely.

One method of understanding how individuals and groups behave in social dilemmas is to create such situations in the laboratory and observe how people react to them. The best known of these laboratory simulations is called the prisoner’s dilemma game (Poundstone, 1992). This game represents a social dilemma in which the goals of the individual compete with the goals of another individual or sometimes with a group of other individuals. Like all social dilemmas, the prisoner’s dilemma assumes that individuals will generally try to maximize their own outcomes in their interactions with others.

In the prisoner’s dilemma game, the participants are shown a payoff matrix in which numbers are used to express the potential outcomes for each of the players in the game, given the decisions each player makes. The payoffs are chosen beforehand by the experimenter to create a situation that models some real-world outcome. Furthermore, in the prisoner’s dilemma game, the payoffs are normally arranged as they would be in a typical social dilemma, such that each individual is better off acting in their immediate self-interest, yet if all individuals act according to their self-interests, then everyone will be worse off.

In its original form, the prisoner’s dilemma game involves a situation in which two prisoners — we’ll call them Frank and Malik — have been accused of committing a crime. The police believe that the two worked together on the crime, but they have only been able to gather enough evidence to convict each of them of a more minor offense. In an attempt to gain more evidence, and thus be able to convict the prisoners of the larger crime, each of the prisoners is interrogated individually, with the hope that they will confess to having been involved in the more major crime in return for a promise of a reduced sentence if they confesses first. Each prisoner can make either the cooperative choice, which is to not confess, or the competitive choice, which is to confess.

The incentives for either confessing or not confessing are expressed in a payoff matrix (see Figure 7.18). The top of the matrix represents the two choices that Malik might make — to either confess that he did the crime or not confess — and the side of the matrix represents the two choices that Frank might make — also to either confess or not confess. The payoffs that each prisoner receives, given the choices of each of the two prisoners, are shown in each of the four squares.



This chart identifies the prisoner's dilemma. Long description available.
Figure 7.18. In the prisoner’s dilemma game, two suspected criminals are interrogated separately. The matrix indicates the outcomes for each prisoner, measured as the number of years each is sentenced to prison, as a result of each combination of cooperative decisions (i.e., not confess) and competitive decisions (i.e., confess). Outcomes for Malik are in black, and outcomes for Frank are in grey. [Long description]

If both prisoners take the cooperative choice by not confessing, which is the situation represented in the upper left square of the matrix, there will be a trial, the limited available information will be used to convict each prisoner, and they each will be sentenced to a relatively short prison term of three years. However, if either of the prisoners confesses, turning “state’s evidence” against the other prisoner, then there will be enough information to convict the other prisoner of the larger crime, and that prisoner will receive a sentence of 30 years, whereas the prisoner who confesses will get off free. These outcomes are represented in the lower left and upper right squares of the matrix. Finally, it is possible that both players confess at the same time. In this case, there is no need for a trial, and in return, the prosecutors offer a somewhat reduced sentence of 10 years to each of the prisoners.

The prisoner’s dilemma has two interesting characteristics that make it a useful model of a social dilemma. For one, the prisoner’s dilemma is arranged in such a way that a positive outcome for one player does not necessarily mean a negative outcome for the other player. If you consider again the payoff matrix shown above, you can see that if one player takes the cooperative choice to not confess and the other takes the competitive choice to confess, then the prisoner who cooperates loses, whereas the other prisoner wins. However, if both prisoners make the cooperative choice, each remaining quiet, then neither gains more than the other, and both prisoners receive a relatively light sentence. In this sense, both players can win at the same time.

Second, the prisoner’s dilemma matrix is arranged so that each individual player is motivated to take the competitive choice because this choice leads to a higher payoff regardless of what the other player does. Imagine for a moment that you are Malik, and you are trying to decide whether to cooperate (i.e., not confess) or to compete (i.e., confess). Imagine that you are not really sure what Frank is going to do. Remember, the goal of the individual is to maximize outcomes. The values in the matrix make it clear that if you think that Frank is going to confess, you should confess yourself to get 10 rather than 30 years in prison. It is also clear that if you think Frank is not going to confess, you should still confess to get no time in prison rather than three years. So, the matrix is arranged so that the “best” alternative for each player, at least in the sense of pure reward and self-interest, is to make the competitive choice, even though in the end both players would prefer the combination in which both players cooperate to the one in which they both compete.

Although initially specified in terms of the two prisoners, similar payoff matrices can be used to predict behaviour in many different types of dilemmas involving two or more parties and including choices of helping and not helping, working and loafing, and paying and not paying debts. For instance, we can use the prisoner’s dilemma to help us understand roommates living together in a house who might not want to contribute to the housework. Each of them would be better off if they relied on the other to clean the house. Yet, if neither of them makes an effort to clean the house, which would be the cooperative choice, the house becomes a mess, and they will both be worse off.



Key Takeaways

  • The performance of working groups is almost never as good as we would expect, given the number of individuals in the group, and in some cases may even be inferior to the performance of one or more members of the group working alone.
  • The tendency to perform tasks better or faster in the presence of others is known as social facilitation. The tendency to perform tasks more poorly or more slowly in the presence of others is known as social inhibition.
  • The ability of a group to perform well is determined by the characteristics of the group members as well as by the events that occur in the group itself, known as the group process.
  • One group process loss that may occur in groups is that the group members may engage in social loafing. Group process losses can also occur as a result of groupthink — that is, when group members conform to each other rather than expressing their own divergent ideas.
  • Taken together, working in groups has both positive and negative outcomes. It is important to recognize both the strengths and limitations of group performance and use whatever techniques we can to increase process gains and reduce process losses.



Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Think of a social dilemma other than one that has been discussed in this section, and explain people’s behaviour in it in terms of principles of learning.
  2. Consider a time when you worked together with others in a group. Do you think the group experienced group process gains or group process losses? If the latter, what might you do now in a group to encourage effective group performance?


Congratulations on completing Chapter 7! Remember to go back to the section on Approach and Pedagogy near the beginning of the book to learn more about how to get the most out of reading and learning the material in this textbook.

Image Attributions

Figure 7.13. Operating Room by John Crawford is in the public domain; Revision 3’s Friday Afternoon Staff Meeting by Robert Scoble is used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Figure 7.14. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Figure 7.15. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Figure 7.16. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Figure 7.17. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Figure 7.18. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Long Descriptions

Figure 7.14. The presence of others causes arousal which produces a dominant response. If the dominant response is correct, there is social facilitation. If the dominant response is incorrect, there is social inhibition.

[Return to Figure 7.14]


Figure 7.15. Group process loss:

Number of men pulling Actual weight pulled Expected weight pulled
1 80 pounds 80 pounds
2 140 pounds 145 pounds
3 180 pounds 205 pounds
8 275 pounds 560 pounds

[Return to Figure 7.15]


Figure 7.16. Causes and outcomes of groupthink that can lead to poor decision making:

Antecedent conditions

  • Time pressure and stress
  • High cohesiveness and social identity
  • Isolation from other sources of information
  • Directive, authoritative leadership

Symptoms of groupthink

  • Illusions of invulnerability
  • Illusions of unanimity
  • In-group favouritism
  • Little search for new information
  • Belief in morality of the group
  • Pressure on dissenters to conform to group norms

[Return to Figure 7.16]


Figure 7.18. The prisoner’s dilemma:

If both Malik and Frank don’t confess, they each get three years in prison. If only one of them confesses, the confessor gets no years in prison while the person who did not confess gets 30 years in prison. If they both confess, they each get 10 years in prison.

[Return to Figure 7.18]


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