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Why teams overinflate their contributions

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If you’ve ever contributed more than your share to a group project, you may be surprised to learn that your teammates all did too—or think they did. When people quantify their share of the load, adding their figures together often produces more than 100 percent.

Now, researchers are shedding more light onto how this “overclaiming” works. It turns out that the larger the group, the more overclaiming each team member is likely to do.

Chicago Booth’s Eugene M. Caruso and Nicholas Epley, with Epley’s former student Juliana Schroeder, conducted a series of studies to explore what factors influence group overclaiming. In one survey, the researchers find that MBA students’ perceived contribution to projects ballooned as team size grew, so much so that reported contributions exceeded 140 percent on some eight-person teams.

In a separate experiment, subjects were issued handgrips and competed in teams of three or six to see which group could squeeze their handgrips the highest number of times in one minute. When the players later assessed their contribution relative to others in their group, six-person teams claimed an average total of nearly 114 percent responsibility, as opposed to 104 percent on the smaller teams.

As the researchers point out, being aware of someone else’s work takes more effort than being aware of one’s own—and remembering the individual efforts of many different people is even more difficult. “As groups get larger, there are simply more contributions from others to overlook,” they write.

The findings suggest that dividing rewards in a way that feels equitable to everyone may be harder for large groups (such as the study’s six-person teams) than for smaller groups (e.g., the three-person teams). Larger groups may be more attuned to perceived inequalities in workload or recognition, resulting in greater dissatisfaction. With a big enough group, the researchers point out, the “wisdom of crowds” may actually devolve into the “foolishness of crowds.”

But Caruso, Epley, and Schroeder also find a possible antidote. When study participants were first asked to estimate how much others had contributed, then asked how much they themselves had contributed, overclaiming decreased. It even decreased when participants were asked to list the other group members’ names before estimating their own contributions.

“Our account suggests that calling attention to others’ contributions should help people adjust their egocentric absolute assessments of effort into relative assessments,” write the researchers. Large groups combined with an innate tendency toward overclaiming may be a recipe for strife, but something as simple as thinking of others’ contributions first—or simply remembering group members’ names—may tweak our cognitive process enough to defuse potential problems before they start.

This article was contributed by The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Alice G. Walton

Alice G.

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