Why is the space station limited to 6 astronauts?

Social loafing is the tendency human show when they are in groups. From a certain number, we rely on the others’ efforts to get the job done, without letting them notice our disengagement or even being aware of our laziness.

Lately I watched a documentary about a potential human mission to Mars. Out of all challenges, the trickiest one is about us: how will astronauts get along, isolated for so long in a confined environment? Neither you nor I will go to Mars soon, but from my experience, the toughest challenges at work are about relationships and working together.

So why is the international space station limited to 6 astronauts? One obvious answer is because of its size, but trust me, engineers could have designed it so it can host more astronauts. To me, the real reason is social loafing, a tendency we cannot fight and that has been discovered back in 1913 by Maximilien Ringelmann.

What is social loafing?

In his experiment, Ringelmann asked someone to play tug of war. He measured the efforts this person put in pulling the rope, depending on how many others were “pulling” with them. He discovered that the more participants behind a rope, the less hard the subject would pull.

The larger the group, the more we rely on each other, sharing the effort.

When have you last witnessed social loafing?

Well, you probably never noticed it. Social loafing is sneaky and about not being noticed when I reduce my own efforts. Tug of war is very good example, no one really knows how hard each of us contributes.

If you ask a big group to go at a location and to pick up rubbish, you will not see social loafing: each individual has its own rubbish bag, no one can make less efforts without being noticed.

So, think about a situation, in a large group, when efforts are not noticeable. For example, in a restaurant, if the whole team is working together, everyone will be a little less proactive with customers. On the other hand, by specializing everyone on a particular task (taking orders, serving food, cleaning tables), it becomes impossible not to be efficient, because no one can rely on anyone.

Group playing tug of war

What is the best group size?

From Ringelmann experiment, many others tried to understand what was going on. In 1993, Karau and Williams did a meta-analysis. They confirmed social loafing exists, and came up with a three factors:

  • Women and eastern cultures have a lesser degree of social loafing
  • Social loafing increases when some team members are expected to perform well
  • Social loafing decreases or disappears when working with friends or a highly valued group.

Now we can’t be friends with everyone. To be able to create meaningful connections, we should be 7 people plus or minus two. This is our brain limit in processing information.

Here are some questions to detect and act on social laziness in your environment. What is your current group size? How many people are in your team, your project?

How can you artificially reduce the number, so you are 5 to 9? Can you create sub-teams, can you break down work in smaller pieces, so less people are required for the job? How can you increase diversity in your team? How can you help people feel more comfortable with one another?