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Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 2011, Vol. 15, No. 3, 267–274

© 2011 American Psychological Association 1089-2699/11/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0024484

Protestant Work Ethic Moderates Social Loafing Diana L. Smrt

Steven J. Karau

Western Illinois University at Quad Cities

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

Prior research on social loafing has emphasized situational factors and has largely neglected personality influences. The current study attempted to close this gap by exploring the potential for Protestant work ethic (PWE) to reduce or eliminate social loafing. Individuals who had been pretested on PWE were asked to work either coactively or collectively on an idea generation task. As predicted, PWE moderated the effects of work condition on individual effort such that PWE scores were negatively associated with social loafing. These results highlight the potential importance of personality influences on group motivation and suggest that individuals with a strong personal work ethic are unlikely to engage in social loafing. Implications for theory and future research are discussed. Keywords: Protestant work ethic, social loafing, motivation

Groups are often indispensable to many important life activities and have the potential for enhancing performance and productivity. However, this potential is seldom fully realized. One well-documented limitation of groups is the tendency for individuals to exert less effort when working in a group than when working individually, a phenomenon known as social loafing (Latane´, Williams, & Harkins, 1979). A metaanalysis of 78 studies found that social loafing is robust, moderate in magnitude, and generalizes fairly well across various settings, tasks, and subject populations (Karau & Williams, 1993). Fortunately, a number of factors have been found to reduce or eliminate social loafing, and motivation gains are even possible in some situations (e.g., Weber & Hertel, 2007; Williams & Karau, 1991). However, the bulk of prior research has emphasized situational moderators of social loafing (such as group size, accountability, evaluation potential, task meaningful-

ness, and group cohesiveness) to the relative exclusion of personality factors (Karau & Williams, 2001). Situational moderators are indeed helpful for designing interventions to reduce or eliminate social loafing, but it is also important to understand what types of individuals might be most or least prone to social loafing. Although most individuals appear susceptible to social loafing on collective tasks, it seems likely that there are some important individual differences in group motivation as well. In particular, individuals with a strong dispositional commitment to hard work might be especially likely to work hard on collective tasks as well as on individual tasks. In the current research we directly addressed this issue by examining the potential for Protestant work ethic to reduce or eliminate social loafing. Hypothesis Development

This article was published Online First July 4, 2011. Diana L. Smrt, Department of Management and Marketing, Western Illinois University at Quad Cities; Steven J. Karau, Department of Management, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Diana L. Smrt, Department of Management and Marketing, Western Illinois University at Quad Cities, Moline, IL 612655881, or to Steven J. Karau, Department of Management, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL 62901-4627. E-mail: or

We reason that Protestant work ethic (PWE, Weber, 1904-05/1958) has special relevance to one’s willingness to exert effort in situations that allow an opportunity to take it easy, an opportunity that is readily available on many collective tasks. Specifically, we adopt BeitHallahmi’s (1979) definition of PWE as “an orientation toward work which emphasizes dedication to hard work, deferment of immediate rewards, conservation of resources, the saving of surplus wealth, and the avoidance of idleness and waste in any form” (p. 263). Because indi-




viduals with high levels of PWE emphasize the importance of hard work and discipline, they are likely to be better able than most individuals to resist the tendency to slack off on group tasks and instead continue to work hard and persist with their efforts. We used the Collective Effort Model (CEM; Karau & Williams, 1993) to refine our key PWE hypothesis. The CEM integrates key elements from expectancy-value (e.g., Vroom, 1964), social identity (e.g., Abrams & Hogg, 1990), and group-level social comparison (Goethals & Darley, 1987) theories. Based on expectancyvalue logic, the model states that people will only work hard on a collective task if they expect their efforts to be instrumental in acquiring outcomes that they personally value. Thus, social loafing often occurs because the link between individual effort and valued outcomes is typically less apparent on collective tasks than on individual tasks. On collective tasks, there are additional contingencies between effort and valued outcomes, such as the actions of other group members and the division of recognition and rewards across multiple individuals. Social loafing may also occur because individuals attach less value to collective performance outcomes (whether objective or subjective) than to individual ones. Based on social identity and group-level social comparison logic, the model states that outcomes that provide information relevant to one’s self-evaluation are likely to be viewed as valuable (Karau & Williams, 1993). Thus, the CEM suggests that individuals who attach greater value to performing well on collective tasks are not likely to engage in social loafing, provided that their efforts are instrumental to performing well on the collective task. Individuals with low levels of PWE do not attach much importance to hard work for its own sake, and are therefore likely to only work hard when they have to. Thus, they are much more likely to work hard on an individual task because they are accountable for their inputs, but are likely to succumb to the temptation to take advantage of others’ efforts when working on a collective task. In contrast, individuals with high levels of PWE place a premium on hard work and persistence in general, and are therefore likely to want to perform well on an effortful task regardless of whether or not they are easily accountable to others. Thus, we predicted that PWE would moderate social loafing, such

that higher PWE scores would be associated with lower levels of social loafing. Relevant Prior Research Protestant Work Ethic The large body of existing research on PWE provides a compelling foundation for our key hypothesis. Specifically, PWE scores (or endorsement of PWE-related values) have been found to be positively associated with hard work (Poulton & Ng, 1988); performance on repetitive tasks (Merrens & Garrett, 1975); steady work rates and persistence (Tang, 1990); working while commuting or traveling (Greenberg, 1978); work-related loyalty (Ali & Azim, 1995); satisfaction with work experiences (Saal, 1978); an internal locus of control (Furnham, 1986); expecting success and having negative reactions to failure (Christopher & Schlenker, 2005); and a greater emphasis on taking both individual (Feather, 1984) and social (MacDonald, 1971) responsibility for performance outcomes (for a review of the PWE literature, see Furnham, 1990a). Thus, there is strong support for the general notion that individuals high in PWE should show a commitment to hard work, persistence, and effort that is resilient to challenges and temptations that other individuals may succumb to. In the current research, we reasoned that a greater general commitment to work and resilience to distractions from work among individuals high in PWE would transfer to group motivation as well, such that they would continue to exert high levels of effort on a collective task, despite the opportunity to reduce their efforts at the expense of other group members. Personality, Culture, and Social Loafing Unfortunately, we are aware of no studies that have directly examined the effects of PWE on social loafing. Although most prior research on social loafing has focused on situational factors, a handful of studies do provide initial documentation of relationships between social loafing and selected personality traits. Some studies seem to suggest that social loafing can be reduced or eliminated when individuals have a dispositional tendency to view the specific task they are performing as meaningful. For example, Smith, Kerr, Markus, and Stasson


(2001) found that high need for cognition individuals did not loaf on a cognitively involving task. Huguet, Charbonnier, and Monteil (1999) found that individuals who viewed themselves as superior in performance to others did not loaf when the task was challenging. A field study by Sorrentino and Sheppard (1978) also found that approval-oriented individuals swam faster in group than in individual competitions. Regarding individual differences more relevant to general work motivation, Hart, Karau, Stasson, and Kerr (2004) found that individuals high in need for achievement did not engage in social loafing regardless of the effort level they expected from a coworker, whereas those low in need for achievement loafed when working with a coworker who was expected to work hard. This provides initial support for our reasoning that individual differences relevant to general effort or motivational preferences (at least in the case of the pursuit of personal goals or standards in the Hart et al. study) can influence group motivation and allow certain individuals to resist temptations to engage in social loafing. Regarding more general personality dimensions, Tan & Tan (2008) found that conscientiousness was negatively related with perceived loafing in classroom project teams. Cultural influences have also been found to play a role in social loafing that may reflect individualistic versus collectivistic work preferences (Triandis, 1989). For example, in the classic article in which they coined the term “social loafing” and described it as a social disease, Latane´ et al. (1979) speculated that culture plays a role in what types of efforts are valued, noting that historical productivity figures were much higher on collective or communal farms (kolkhoz and kibbutz) in Russia and Israel than they were for comparable private operations or plots. Earley (1993) found high levels of collective effort among individuals from collective cultures when they were working with a familiar group. Similarly, Latane´ (1986) found that Indian participants worked harder with a friend than when working alone. An initial metaanalytic comparison (Karau & Williams, 1993) suggested lower (albeit still significant) levels of social loafing among participants from Eastern, rather than Western, cultures. Taken together, these findings may suggest that different contextual perceptions of work ethic, as influ-


enced by culture, may influence the occurrence and magnitude of social loafing. PWE and Motivation Losses in Groups Although we are aware of no studies that have examined the relationship between PWE and the general phenomenon of social loafing, a recent study by Abele and Diehl (2008) did examine the relationship that PWE may have with more specific motivation losses known as “free rider” and “sucker” effects. In the paradigm used to study sucker and free-rider effects, individuals are asked to work over repeated trials with a partner on a disjunctive task in which the group succeeds if either partner’s effort meets a preestablished criterion. By using either a confederate or false feedback, the situation is designed to show the partner as either regularly succeeding at the task (making the individual’s own efforts entirely dispensable or unnecessary) or regularly failing (such that the individual’s own efforts determine whether the group succeeds or fails). Kerr (1983) showed that individuals produced low effort levels in both situations, refusing to “play the sucker” and cover up for a partner who repeatedly performed poorly on the task, and “free riding” on the efforts of a partner whose effort always resulted in success for the group. Abele and Diehl (2008) used items from multiple PWE scales to examine three components (identified via factor analysis) of PWE in relation to both the sucker effect and the free-rider effect. They found that the sucker effect was moderated by all three studied components of PWE, but the free rider effect was only moderated by one of the three (belief in the instrumental value of work). The moderation of the sucker effect supports our hypothesis that individuals with high levels of PWE might show high levels of effort in situations where others would slack off. Specifically, high PWE individuals may be willing to work hard enough for the group to succeed, even when they are fully aware that a lazy partner who is contributing nothing is taking advantage of their efforts. On the surface, the lack of moderation of the freerider effect on two of the three components of PWE (the desire for equity in work and belief in the ethical value of work) would seem contrary to our hypothesis. However, it must be considered that the individual’s efforts are entirely



dispensable when one’s partner is always succeeding on a disjunctive task. Thus, even high PWE individuals may not bother to exert high effort levels on a task for which their efforts are entirely unnecessary, unless their work ethic includes strong feelings that working hard always has some potential value (as opposed to strong feelings that working hard is the fair or ethical thing to do). Taken as a whole, Abele and Diehl’s results suggest that PWE is likely to be positively related with effort on a group task, even in cases where others are taking advantage of one’s efforts, except for unusual cases in which one’s efforts are totally unnecessary for the group to succeed (and even in these latter cases, high PWE individuals will still work hard if they believe strongly in the instrumental value of work). Differences across the three facets of PWE only appeared when the individual’s efforts were entirely unnecessary for group success. When individual efforts were useful to the group, all three facets of PWE moderated motivation losses. Although Abele and Diehl’s (2008) findings certainly provide insight into some motivational processes within groups, their results only address situations in which one is working on a disjunctive task with a partner that is known to be capable but who always fails anyhow (in the case of the sucker effect) or who always succeeds such that one’s own efforts are entirely unnecessary (in the case of the free rider effect). However, on many more common group tasks, members have a chance to make at least some useful contributions in a context where others are not taking complete advantage of their efforts. In the current research, we employ a standard social loafing paradigm using an additive task in which each member’s inputs directly contribute to the group total to examine whether PWE moderates the more general phenomenon of social loafing. The Current Research In the current research, we directly examine whether individual differences in one’s general dedication to hard work and discipline moderate social loafing. We conducted our study in two Phases. In Phase 1, participants completed a measure of PWE. In Phase 2, a subset of these individuals participated in a laboratory experi-

ment in which they worked either coactively or collectively on an idea generation task (Harkins & Petty, 1982), allowing us to assess the relationship between PWE and social loafing. We predicted that PWE would moderate social loafing, such that increases in PWE would be associated with a reduced tendency to work less hard collectively than individually. Methods Participants were undergraduate students enrolled in one of three business classes in either of two semesters at a small public university in the Midwestern United States. They received extra credit points for class in return for their participation. In Phase 1, 124 participants completed Mirels and Garrett’s (1971) PWE scale at the beginning of a class. The 19-item Mirels and Garrett scale has been widely used to assess PWE and shows good evidence for internal consistency (with alphas typically ranging from .67 to .79 across studies), as well as initial evidence for concurrent and predictive validity (e.g., Furnham, 1990b; McHoskey, 1994). Responses are assessed using a 5-point rating scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Our sample had a mean PWE score of 63.29 (SD ⫽ 7.80). A subset of 74 individuals from Phase 1 also participated in Phase 2 approximately two weeks later. Because the idea generation task is verbal in nature and could be influenced by English fluency, we excluded five non-native speakers. The final sample of 69 participants consisted of 28 men and 41 women with an average age of 27.22 years. All participants were employed with a mean of 10.36 years of work experience. Groups of two to seven individuals (group size M ⫽ 5.15) arrived to a laboratory room at preestablished times and were seated on one side of a long table, with each seat separated from the others by large dividers. Each group was randomly assigned to either coactive or collective work conditions. Participants were asked not to talk or communicate with each other in any way during the experiment. Written instructions were distributed and participants were asked to read along while the experimenter read the instructions. Participants were told that they would be working on a brainstorming task for 12 minutes in which it


was extremely important to generate as many uses for an object as they possibly could and write each use down on an answer sheet. Participants in the coactive condition were told that we were interested in their individual performance and that their answer sheets would be collected and evaluated individually. Participants in the collective condition were told that we were interested in their performance as a group, that we would evaluate the total group performance, and that all participants in the room shared the responsibility for the group’s performance. In addition, participants in the collective condition were told that we would ask them to shuffle their answers sheets together at the end of the brainstorming task and place them in a manila folder before they were collected so that we would not be able to identify anyone’s individual performance. After the instructions were read, the experimenter addressed any questions, informed the participants that the object they were to generate uses for was a knife, and left the room. At the end of the 12-min session, the experimenter collected the answer sheets and asked participants to complete a brief questionnaire containing manipulation checks and items asking about perceptions of the task. Upon completion of the questionnaires, the experimenter provided more information about the research, thanked participants for their participation, and adjourned the session. Results To assess the adequacy of our manipulation of the coactive versus collective work condition, we asked participants to answer two items asking how likely they thought it was that we would know exactly how well they had performed on the task individually, and how concerned we were with evaluating their individual performance. These items were averaged to produce an index (r ⫽ .63). Individuals in the coactive condition (M ⫽ 6.94) scored much high on this index than did individuals in the collective condition (M ⫽ 3.03), F(1, 68) ⫽ 80.33, p ⫽ .0001. Thus, the work condition manipulation was successful. We tested our key PWE hypothesis using moderated regression analysis with work condition as a categorical variable and PWE (centered) as a continuous variable. The coefficient


for work condition was marginally significant, B ⫽ ⫺2.87, ␤ ⫽ ⫺.23, t ⫽ ⫺1.99, p ⫽ .051. Thus, overall effort levels were higher for individuals who worked coactively (M ⫽ 34.09) than for individuals who worked collectively (M ⫽ 29.00), consistent with the standard social loafing effect. More important, PWE moderated the effects of work condition on effort in the predicted manner, B ⫽ .39, ␤ ⫽ .25, t ⫽ 2.16, p ⫽ .035. To reveal the pattern of this interaction, we estimated means from the regression model for individuals scoring 1 SD above and 1 SD below the PWE mean. As shown in Figure 1, low levels of PWE were associated with much higher effort in the coactive condition than in the collective condition (indicating social loafing) but this difference was reduced significantly as levels of PWE increased, with the difference eliminated at high levels of PWE. This provides strong support for our key hypothesis that PWE moderates social loafing. Discussion We found that PWE moderated social loafing such that increases in PWE scores were associated with a significant reduction in the usual tendency to work harder coactively than collectively. This provides further documentation for individual differences in motivation to work hard on collective tasks and shows that not all individuals engage in social loafing. Namely, whereas individuals with low levels of PWE readily engage in social loafing, individuals high in PWE—who have a strong dispositional commitment to hard work—appear to be resilient in the face of opportunities to slack off and do not succumb to the usual tendency to take it easy and free ride on the efforts of others when working on a collective task. This suggests that PWE contributes to high effort levels regardless of whether the task is individual or group in nature. Stated differently, whereas individuals with low levels of PWE are likely to be strategic about their efforts and only work hard when they have to, individuals with high levels of PWE are likely to work hard regardless due to their belief in the value of hard work, contribution, and avoiding idleness or inactivity. Given that the bulk of the existing literature on social loafing has explored mostly situational factors, our results reinforce the potential importance that personality can play in collective motiva-



coactive collective

Uses Generated





15 low

high PWE Score

Figure 1.

Social loafing moderated by Protestant work ethic.

tion. Our results also provide support for the CEM by showing that an individual difference relevant to the relative value attached to collective outcomes has a significant impact on one’s willingness to work hard on collective tasks. Specifically, individuals who attach greater value to hard work in general are significantly less likely to engage in social loafing than individuals who attach relatively more value to tasks that they are individually accountable for than to group tasks on which they can hide in the crowd and rely on the efforts of others. Our study has a number of strengths. First, our research was theory-driven, using hypothesized relationships derived from the CEM. Second, our use of a controlled laboratory experiment allowed us to control for extraneous variables and draw stronger causal inferences. Third, our research has clear potential practical and managerial implications. However, our research also has limitations that should be acknowledged. Specifically, our use of a laboratory study employing college students may place constraints on external validity. Future research in field settings would be useful to

cross-validate our findings. Also, because our study represents a preliminary investigation of PWE and motivation within groups it takes the crucial step of documenting the existence of a relationship between PWE and social loafing, but did not endeavor to fully articulate the precise mechanisms underlying that relationship. We also recognize that documenting that PWE can moderate social loafing is only a first step in identifying the full range of conditions under which PWE is likely to overcome typical motivation losses in groups or even lead to potential motivation gains. The current research has relatively clear potential implications for practitioners as well. Our results could benefit managers by shedding additional light on what types of people are most likely to slack off versus work hard in groups. Namely, if the present results were to receive converging support from future replications and field studies, they would clearly suggest that levels of work ethic should be carefully considered when assigning individuals to group tasks and deciding what level of monitoring or incentives to deploy when managing the group.


Namely, those individuals with low levels of commitment to hard work are likely to take advantage of teams unless they are held accountable for their individual contributions or given strong situational reasons to contribute despite opportunities to slack off. In contrast, individuals with high levels of commitment to hard work are likely to expend high effort on both individual and group tasks, and may not require interventions, monitoring, or incentives that might otherwise be necessary to motivate individuals to make strong contributions to collective efforts. Our study also suggests several promising areas for future research. Specifically, studies could seek to identify additional personality characteristics that influence motivation in groups. It would be interesting to study additional variables that might influence collective effort either overall or on specific tasks. Karau, Markus, and Williams (2000) use the CEM to identify a number of additional personality characteristics that might be logically expected to affect collective motivation, including selfesteem, self-monitoring, and locus of control. Future research could address potential antecedents or moderators of PWE and social loafing, such as educational background, family upbringing, or beliefs about the value of specific tasks or work environments. Last but not least, a promising avenue for future related research would be to test the hypothesized relationships in organizational settings or among intact groups. We hope the present study will be useful in stimulating additional attention to task and personality influences on individual motivation in groups. References Abele, S., & Diehl, M. (2008). Finding teammates who are not prone to sucker and free-rider effects: The Protestant work ethic as a moderator of motivation losses in group performance. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 11, 39 –54. Abrams, D., & Hogg, M. A. (1990). Social identity theory: Constructive and critical advances. New York: Springer-Verlag. Ali, A. J., & Azim, A. (1995). Work ethic and loyalty in Canada. Journal of Social Psychology, 135, 31–36. Beit-Hallahmi, B. (1979). Personal and social components of the Protestant ethic. Journal of Social Psychology, 109, 263–267.


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Protestant Work Ethic Moderates Social Loafing  

HypothesisDevelopment WesternIllinoisUniversityatQuadCities SouthernIllinoisUniversityatCarbondale Keywords:Protestantworkethic,socialloafing...

Protestant Work Ethic Moderates Social Loafing  

HypothesisDevelopment WesternIllinoisUniversityatQuadCities SouthernIllinoisUniversityatCarbondale Keywords:Protestantworkethic,socialloafing...