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What Is Meant By Then Concept of Motivational Loss?

How Can The Conditions that Produce Motivational Loss In Groups Be Reduced or Eliminated


The hundred workers assembling the new Volkswagen Beatle, the students conversing under the tree instead of working on their research paper, the six specialists on the volleyball court and the boardroom executives strategizing in order to increase profits are all examples of the group in action. Groups register at level in society and function at every degree of significance. In fact, sociologists would be eager to mention that society itself is the group of all groups.  And Although psychologists concentrate on the individual, they too are of the belief that we are group-oriented beings. Because of its pervasive nature and the impact they have on our lives there have been countless efforts to study the phenomenon that is the group, in the hopes of providing or contributing to its definitive understanding.

            Charles Horton Cooley (1909) in Social Organisation distinguishes two distinct group types within society: the primary and secondary groups. The primary groups are characterised by intimate relations, where unity—for the most part—is not calculated and actions are relatively free flowing. On the other hand, secondary groups are far more structured and only allow individuals to participate in a more restricted sense than in the primary group. They are typically larger than the primary groups and have fewer points of contact. In the situations presented before, the volleyball team and the conversing friends could be considered primary groups while the assembly line workers and the boardroom executives are possible examples of secondary groups.

            The study of groups is interesting because people have long assumed that groups are by nature more productive and effective than individuals. Some studies have shown that this is not necessarily the case. The purpose of this essay will be to determine if the condition that produce motivational loss—and by extent affect group productivity—can be absolutely eliminated. To do this I will present the varying definition of groups, group development, examine why people join them, their purposes, the types of tasks groups engage in, group effectiveness and productivity, the factors that affect productivity and finally how can these be overcome. All of these will be looked at with exclusive reference to the secondary and formal groups.

            Nevertheless, it must stated, whether groups or individuals are more productive hinges upon several intertwining factors, which under no circumstance, allow a clear and absolute positive support for one or negative for the other.


            Cookie and Walter Stephan (1990) indicate that social psychology’s aim is to understand and explain human action in a social context. Considering that groups lay the foundations for any possible social context, it is clear why social psychologists are so fascinated by them. The area in which psychologist concern themselves with group activity is know as group dynamics. But even so as Malcolm and Hulda Knowles (1959) demonstrate, there are many different understanding of what precisely is meant by the term group dynamics. For some it is that which takes place in a group regardless of whether we take note of it or not. This belief is held by the likes of Dorwin Cartwright and Alvin Zander (1968) who state it is what happens when a ‘collection of individuals has become…sufficiently interdependent’ (p. 57). For others it is simply applying the knowledge we have acquired about groups. Another perspective suggest that group dynamics is the ‘field of study using scientific methods to determine why groups behave the way they do’ (Knowles & Knowles, 1959, p. 11-13). David and Frank Johnson (1991) are two scientists who subscribe to this latter view.

The area was pioneered by Kurt Lewin who brought a Gestaltist, whole, perspective to the study of groups, Lewin later created his field theory on the subject. Although it was arguably the first theory of group dynamics, now it is by no means the only one (Olmstead & Hare, 1978). The Field Theory approach assumes that the group exists in an environment in which forces of that environment impinge upon and hence influence the actions of the group. Another, the Factor Analysis approach, as lead by Raymond Cattel seeks to understand groups by identifying their primary attribute. The Formal Organisation approach seeks to gain a comprehensive view of organisational activities and the nature of leadership on such. The Sociometric approach hones in on the interpersonal and emotional qualities of the group. And finally the Psychoanalytic approach focuses on how the group affects emotional and personal development of the individual (Knowles & Knowles, 1959).

            Groups are everywhere and have both positive and negative implications; therefore the study and subsequent theorising or their occurrence can be of immense value. It is because of these that we are afforded the opportunity to predict the outcome of elections, the possibility of civil unrest and even the likelihood of discrimination. There are two broad methods of analyzing group activity: the individual and the group orientations (individual theories would be associated with either one of these methods). Within the individual approach scientists concentrate on the internal processes and innate function of the members in the group. On the other hand there are those who see the group as an entity of itself and analyze it as a whole, there is no attempt to identify any individualist traits and characteristic of the members (Johnson & Johnson, 1991). They both have strengths and weaknesses that tend to compliment each other. Where as the individualistic approach affords us a more qualitative look at group action by allowing us to see possible reasoning behind behaviours—in other words permitting us to put action in context for a better understanding—its inclined to looses sight of the idea that a group can be an entity all to itself. It is on this point that the general group analysis finds its strength. While there are those that strictly adhere to either one or the other thesis approaches, a good researcher will embark on precise mixture of both methods. 

Group definitions are in line with the types of methods that scientist use when studying groups. Following an individualistic approach, Floyd Allport argues that the group is no more than the sum total of its members characteristics, saying it is only the ‘shared set of values, ideas, thoughts and habits that exist simultaneously in the minds of the several persons (Johnson & Johnson, 1991, p.13).

Others who adopt a more whole orientation to the entity have offered several definitions.  Cartwright and Zander (1968) argue it is a single entity made up of multiple agents who exhibit a collective notion of their unity through actions upon the environment. Johnson and Johnson (1991) define the phenomena as ‘two or more individuals in face to face interaction,’ where persons are aware or each other, their membership, and their interdependence to attain a common goal (p.14). Knowles and Knowles (1959) claim that a group is a collection of people who interact, have a definable membership, posses a s sense of togetherness and purpose and exercise their ability to act in a ‘unitary manner’(p.39). Kurt Lewin is of the belief that a groups is a dynamic whole based on interdependence rather than on similarity (as cited in Cartwright & Zander, 1968, p. 46)

These are by no means an exhaustive and all encompassing list, as it is clear that they too have their deficiencies. For Example Johnson and Johnson posit ‘face to face interaction’ yet this clearly fails to explain our globalized reality in which Non-Governmental Organization and such international bodies exist, for because of sheer size cannot engage in face to face interaction, yet no one would deny that they are groups. Also, take for instance a large number of people at a terminus pushing and shoving to board the bus, they are relating to each other and in a face to face manner sufficiently enough so encourage attention, yet, I am sure most scientist would consider them nothing more than a crowd maybe even a mob. The variations in definition are symptomatic of the fog that exists in groups study. This confusion is perpetuated by the social scientists themselves who have resorted to isolating aspects of a group activity and using it as a reflection of the fundamental nature of phenomenon (Johnson & Johnson, 1991).

For the purposes of this essay the definition offered by Robert Baron and Donne Byrne (2000) is my definition of choice. They see groups as ‘two or more persons who interact with one another, share common goals, are somehow interrelated and recognize that they belong to a group’ (p.480).


Other than the family into which we are born and are a member from day one, all other groups either join or create. At the forefront of how groups come into being are the Sequential and Recurring-Phase theories (Johnson & Johnson, 1991). Sequential theories argue that group development moves in distinctive fashion. Arguably the most popular of the sequential theorists in Bruce Tuckman who laid out five stages which he believed groups go through. These stages are as follows: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and finally Adjourning (Johnson & Johnson, 1991).  During the forming stage members are finding their footing so to speak, gathering information about their similarities and difference, acquiring impressions and preferences about future sub-groups. The mode of conduct during this stage is keeping all thing simple. Part of doing this is looking exclusively to the leader for guidance. In the Forming stage competition and hostilities rise as the member attempt to organize for their task. Individuals members will have to compromise to suit the group and move on to processes that will help in goal achievement. Tuckman (1965) states that in the Norming stage members are aware of each contributions. A thirst for knowledge is evident and ideas and opinions become based on presented facts. Group cohesion increases along with trust and it becomes easier to solve conflicts. The Performing stage is characterized by true interdependence. Roles are not as fixed as in the Forming stage and they change and develop as needs change. The essential aim is high productivity—usually by problem solving and work. Risk taking increases, as people have become more comfortable with their capabilities. Finally Tuckman’s last stage of Adjourning is simply the dissolving of the group.

Although the five stages are clearly laid out, not all groups make it through them. Many fail to get past the initial conflicts, which in effect defeats the purpose of having joined the group.

The Recurring-phase theory is such named as it allows members to repeatedly address the issues affecting the group as they see them. Johnson and Johnson present Bion’s arguments which say the for the most part thesis issues tend to be leader dependency, emotional support and the appropriate response to a treat to the group.

Johnson and Johnson were keen to show that though these theories are radically different they are by no means mutually exclusive. As the group goes through the stages as pointed by Tuckman they man be faced with issues that may not be absolutely resolvable at this time and need to address them later.


Having looked at what groups are and how they develop the question begs to be asked: why do people join them? It has been argued the people join groups for a myriad of reasons, some of which are as follows: to fulfil there interpersonal needs; to fulfil social needs; to achieve a sense of security and--most common in a formal structure—to carry our task that the individual would have difficulty doing all by himself (SMSU, 1999,). In other words, individuals are in one form or another motivated to join groups. It follows that, people’s reasons for joining groups and the purposes that they serve are intrinsically bond and in no way can be separated.

On the first point, many psychologists have pointed out that humans have an interpersonal need for acceptance, belongings and respect. A good group can provide the setting to satisfy all of these needs. For example the Howard University in the United States a predominantly black tertiary institution was founded in order to give African Americans an education in an environment free from racial biases, while also treating the individual with the respect that the rest of society did not offer them.

It has been said that human are social beings (Cooley, 1909) and as such groups give us an avenue to match the desires that come along with being such. A group setting allows alike and dissimilar people to mix and mingle hence fostering the formation of possible valued, supportive and self-enhancing relationships. The family, the peer grouping and some work settings are essential example of this These two reasons are explained by both the Social Learning and Exchange theories. The former argues that because of the familial setting we have become accustomed to depending on groups for help, support, love and information. The latter contends we choose groups that provide the greatest rewards--which can be anything from financial aid to emotional satisfaction (Baron, Kerr & Miller, 1993). The later theory does a good job linking the interpersonal –emotional needs—to the social needs.

On a large scale joining a group to ensure security is evidenced in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was set up as a means of combating any advance the communist Soviet Union and Eastern European countries would make, but it can also be seen on a smaller degree as well, for even the local neighbourhood watch is a group designed to ensure the security or the members of the respective community. This can be argued from a Sociobiological point of view which states that we have found that grouping together gives a better chance against our enemies and thus increases our chances of survival (Baron, Kerr & Miller, 1993).

Another less obvious argument for why we join groups is offered by Leon Festinger in his Social Comparison Theory. He states we have a very strong need to hold accurate views and one way in which we can verify them is by comparing them to other. For example a group of friends notice a classmate passing a new shirt one may have already decided that she like the shirt but she still engages in discourse with her friends to both see their view on it and to confirm her own.

Finally, and most importantly—at lest to this essay—groups appear to provide an effective means though which tasks, attempted by the individual would be either impossible or yield extremely undesirable results. Under no circumstances is it desirable to have one person built a six bedroom house, clearly this is a group oriented task.

            Whether it is to satisfy some human need, to ensure security or to carry out a task all groups have one thing in common, they exist to achieve goals. The family’s aims to socialise the individual into functional human being; the school’s purpose is to ensure the individual’s education both of life and in the world of work; the world of world’s objective is to provide a service and or maximise profits. In essence, no matter what characteristics a group possesses its underlying reason for being is to accomplish a goal. A goals, as defined by Johnson & Johnson (1991), is an ‘ideal,’ an end, ‘a place towards which people are working’ (p.60-61). Even though I have relayed others’ ideas notions that groups’ main purpose is to achieve a goal, some have questioned whether groups in themselves have goals. They contend that the group may not indeed have global goals, but that they are simply the blending of individual member’s aims. Their arguments can be substantiated when one considers a little childhood business endeavour. Andrea wants a new boom box, Peter’s laptop requires additional memory and Christopher would like to attend Sting. The three friends decide to embark on a cake/hotdog sale in order to acquire the necessary money to fund their desires. It can be argues that the boom box, additional memory and attending sting—all being ends—form the combination of individual goals and as such the group has no overriding goal. On the other hand, it can also be argued that the profits from the cake sale tasks is the overriding group goal, because it is a place towards which—together—the members are working. In my humble opinion both position are correct.


            Ivan Steiner in 1972 puts forward three types of tasks groups may undertake as a means of achieving their goal. These are disjunctive, conjunctive, additive; A disjunctive task is one in which a solution is needed; conjunctive tasks are those that in order to secure success all parties need to contribute, this usually ensured by delegation; and additive tasks are those in which the individual’s efforts, on an activity, combine to create the group’s total productivity (Parks & Sanna, 1999; Baron, Kerr & Miller 1993).

According to David and Frank Johnson (1991), a group is deemed effective—and by extension productive—when goals are attained, good working relationship between members are sustained and flexible enough affect necessary change. The standard view states that groups do tasks more effectively and are higher in productivity than individuals. However there has been enough research to challenge this view. As Steiner himself argues, the nature of the task dictates how it must be tackled and as such provides a blueprint for success, but despite this, he notes that many groups are far less productive that they should be. He continues by saying that which the group actually produces is their Potential Productivity minus the Process Losses (all the negatives actions that reduces effectiveness and productivity) that take place during group interaction. (Parks & Sanna,1999). Process Loss is an umbrella for both coordination loss and motivational loss.

Motivation in is simplest form is understood as the drive to do something. Where as coordination loss is that which takes place when the group fails to effectively organise itself (whether through strategising or cooperation), motivational loss is that which occurs when people are not as stimulated or enthused working in the group as they would be working alone and as a result they exert less effort in group activities. There are three main types of motivational losses: the free rider phenomenon, the sucker effect and the most famous, social loafing.

            The free rider is one who slacks off and hides in the crowd, hoping no one will notice that he is applying far less effort to the activity than every body else (Olson, 1965). For example twenty persons are hired to fill and 50ft well with water. Each person would be responsible for filling 2.5ft of the well, but since the well will be filled regardless of how much any one person contributes, then a few persons may feel that there really is no need for them to go out of their way and do as much as everybody else. This is evidenced in the results of an experiment carried out by Norbert Kerr in 1983. Participants in the experiment worked either alone or as part of dyad, but remained in seclusion. The task was to pump air into a bulb. Those working alone, if succeeded would receive 25 cents per exercise and those working as a dyad were told that the groups succeeded if either member succeeded. The participants working in fake dyads were repeatedly feed false information after every trial, that his partner had succeed and hence secured success for the group. Results showed that the dyad participants worked significantly less than the individual control subjects (Parks & Sanna, 1999; Baron, Kerr & Miller, 1993). It can be inferred that as in the example provided above the dyad participants thought to themselves ‘why bother engaging in the task when the outcome would be the same whether I do it or not’.

            The sucker effect cannot be absolutely separated from the free rider phenomenon as in some instances they function as two sides of the same coin. The sucker effect takes place when one or few individuals are the ones who are contributing the bulk of effort and others are simply reaping the rewards without pulling their weight. This may de-motivate the hard working member who, upon seeing others ride freely on his labours, now reduces his efforts because he wishes not to be used (Parks & Sanna, 1999).

            Social Loafing is the form of motivational loss that has evoked the majority of research. One definition offered by Parks and Sanna (1999) states that it is the ‘reduced efforts that are often exhibited by individual group members when they work collectively at a task (p.82). Though this definition is adequate, it is sufficiently broad to encompass the free rider phenomena and sucker effect as well. Social loafing in this instance is separate from free riding and sucker effect but this writer has yet to find a definition that reflects this separation. Latane, William and Harkin in 1979 carried out study in which males were asked to cheer or clap as loud as they could at certain items. They clapped or shouted alone and then in groups or two and six or simply lead to believe they were clapping in groups of two and six. The results clearly showed that as groups the group membership increased, even though the noise level did intensify individual output invariably decreased (Baron & Byrne, 2000; Parks & Sanna, 1999; Baron, Kerr & Miller, 1993).  Latane et al were by no means the first to show such definitive results; the experimenters took their cue for Max Ringleman who had conducted research in 1913. He had individuals and groups of two, three and eight pull as hard as they could on a rope. It reason to say, if there was no loss then group of three would exert three times a much force as the individual and similarly the group of eight times as much. However this was not the case. Findings showed that as the group size increase the individuals input gradually decreased, by the time the group got up to eight members the total out put was much less than eight times the individual output (Parks & Sanna, 1999; Baron, Kerr & Miller, 1993).

Social Loafing is especially unique because it not limited to physical activities but research has demonstrated that it occurs on mental task as well (Parks & Sanna, 1999). Additionally unlike the other forms of motivational losses, which are more common place on disjunctive and conjunctive task, social loafing is more closely associated with additive tasks. Furthermore, in contrast to free riding and sucker effect where the free rider or sucker makes a decision not to action according to their abilities, social loafing is not necessarily a conscious action.

Having identified the pervasive nature of motivation losses, researchers have posited several theories to explain them. The social impact theory argues that people feel that the weight of the task fall less and less on their shoulders as the group size increases. Following this line of reasoning one way to reduce motivational loss would be to reduce group size, therefore members can immediately acknowledge that they are responsible for large portion of the undertaking.  (Baron & Byrne, 2000; Baron, Kerr & Miller, 1993). This theory can be verified by Ringleman and Latane et al studies where the participant’s apparently exerted less effort because they believed they could get lost in the crowd, so to speak.


All the arguments so far proposing process loss, with specific reference to motivational loss are based on the Ivan Steiners 1972 model of Productivity, Steiner himself has been criticised for assuming that any given groups have a fixed productivity upper limit, that if not reached is indication of some process loss (Johnson & Johnson, 2000; Baron, Kerr & Miller, 1993). Other researchers have argued that this is not inevitably true and that maybe a group is only as productive as its most capable members. Furthermore Steiner seemed to have succeeded in reducing human activity to a mathematical formulae and viewing any human circumstance (as is the case with motivational loss) as an incomplete equation.

There is evidence that some would argue contradicts the entire idea of motivational loss and the resultant loss in productivity. They point to theories and signs of positive social facilitation and social compensation to support their claims. They contend that research—whether it is cockroaches running in front of other cockroaches; or cyclists riding with each other as opposed to alone; or children told to reel fishing wire as fast as then can when alone and when with others-—shows that individual performance increases when others are present. But a detailed look will show that motivational loss and social facilitation are on different continuums. While motivational loss takes place when groups are engaged in a cooperative task and there is some level of interdependence, social facilitation is more closely linked to competition and mere presence of others, meaning that the individuals are not a group in the true sense of the word, but only in the most layman sense that of a simple gathering of people.

Additionally, Williams and Karau in 1991 produced a study which implies that even on cooperative tasks, social loafing and by extension productivity loss needs not occur. Groups of two were asked to produce as many uses for a knife as they possible could. In the groups one partner was a co-conspirator of the experimenters. In some group he would state his intention work hard on the task and other he would do just the opposite. Williams and Karau found the in groups where the participants heard of his partners minimal intentions, the participants generated more ideas than those who heard of the co-conspirators high intentions. This is small evidence that when members of a group belief there will be social loafing, they work hard to compensate for it, therefore keeping productivity and effectiveness high. But still this is not complete evidence against motivational loss. After all motivation loss may occur but still does not affect productivity because the other members picking up the slack would have offset its effects.

Other theory contends that people motivation decreases because they know their efforts cannot be evaluated (particularly free riders). One strategy to combat this is to not only make individual effort identifiable but also subject it to evaluation (Baron & Byrne, 2000; Parks & Sanna, 1999). For example on a class project with six person in the group, someone my feel very comfortable knowing that everybody else knows he is socially loafing, even if the project requires the submission of a contribution sheet. However if that contribution sheet will be used to determine the grade that person receives he may not be as comfortable loafing as he would be otherwise.

Another theory, the Collective Effort Model, states that people will only work hard (whether in group or alone) if they believe it will lead to better performance, if that performance will be recognise and if the rewards are desirable to them (Baron & Byrne, 2000). As such, one way to counter loafing and thus reduce motivational loss is to offer desirable incentives for hard work. 

Another trend observed—which has great significance of reducing motivational loss—is that of the task being intrinsically interesting to, or of some important meaning for, those who are performing it (Parks and Sanna, 1999). For example when someone has been the victim of a crash caused by a drunk driver and he joins a group against drunk driving he will find more personal motivation to fully engage himself in their efforts because it has personal meaning for him as well.

It has also been seen that when individuals believe their efforts are unique and that they have some thing specially to offer the group on a task then they are less likely to engage in activities that promote motivational loss. Therefore, it is the group’s responsibility particularly that of the leaders to impress upon the members that they are valued for their unique and important contributions (Baron & Byrne, 2000).

Finally, it is always wise to plan ahead, and a good group may want to identify situation in which motivation loss (whether via free riding, sucker effect or social loafing) may occur in order to stem it before it happens. One way of achieve this is having discussion within the group about the phenomenon so all the members are fully aware and go into the task cognizant of their actions.

Other situations where it has been observed that social loafing and by extension motivational loss has been reduced are those in which the group member are natives of a collectivist culture that places high value on group outcome and effort. And that individuals work with people that they like, respect and there exist a real sense of interdependence, in other words there exists a true group and not just a set of co-actors (Baron & Byrne, 2000).

It must be noted that it much easier to list and identify strategies than to implement them as they too have their limitations The first approach mentioned was to reduce group size. In the real world there are some tasks that inherently need a large group. Undoubtedly, United Nations Peacekeeping or Refugee missions will be successful in small groups. And even though each person may have a large portion of the responsibility, given the importance of the task, some individuals will find ways to hide in the crowd. Therefore, group size reduction may not necessarily practically applicable. The second was to make each contribution identifiable and possibly evaluative. It is human nature that regardless of how identifiable and open to evaluation a particular task is there will be those who just refuse to do any work. Thirdly, offering desirable incentives many result in fierce in-group competition, to the point of destructive consequences. One person, wanting a reward so much the he or she resorts to undermining the efforts of other group members. Fourthly, considering the Caribbean specifically, and the western world generally which are built on the idea of individualism, clearly the group member being from collectivists culture recommendation has little if any relevance to us. And finally, though it is a nice though to be able to work in groups with people that we like it not a very common occurrence in our society, as most groups are created out of necessity and not a genuine desire to do so, and given the nature of business there are little efforts to change this.


            In conclusion it is safe to say that there is a generic understanding of how groups are formed, maintained and why people join them in the first place, but is just as safe a bet to assume our understanding of exactly that which takes place in the group is still being constructed by social research. Steiner has put forward his view of how group forces affect its productivity, but as his critics point he bases his theory on assumptions that is possibly inherently flawed. An evaluation which they use to argue that maybe his ideas about motivational loss are indeed irrelevant or disproportioned. Although his critics make this declaration they have provided virtually no evidence to support it, what they have done instead is demonstrate that motivational loss, however, need not result in lower group productivity. Steiner and others have identified strategies, which can be used to reduce or eliminate motivation loss, hence increase the productivity of groups. However, the strategies themselves are limited in how much they can do and such I believe that while motivational loss can be significantly reduced, it is absolutely inevitable and cannot be eliminated. As such this makes Steiner’s Potential Productivity—the upper limit—an ideal that groups will probably never attain. Having said this, it would be easy to deduce that groups are inherently less productive that individuals, but a closer look will no doubt reveal the interconnection that make groups more complex than individuals, and as a result simple linear reasoning, as mentioned above, cannot be applied to groups. As with most other things in psychology it will take far more studies to afford us a comprehensive understanding of the wonder that is the group. 




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