When People Work Together is Less More or Less (and is More Less or More)?

Written by Andreas Kappes

This is an unedited version of Andreas Kappes’ article which was originally  published on The Conversation


Doping in sports often gives us intriguing insights not only into how we think about right and wrong1, but also into our intuitions about performance. In the aftermath of the latest doping scandal, for instance, Arsene Wegner, eminent football manager of Arsenal London, accused the Uefa (governing body of European football) of “basically accepting” doping 2. Arsenal London had just lost to Dynamo Kiev and one player form the Ukrainian team was caught doping. Uefa did not punish the Ukrainians, only the perpetrator. But surely, one doped player makes a team better, gives an unfair advantage to them, right? This intuition reflects how most of us think about performance in groups, not only in sports, but group performance everywhere. More of something that enhances individual performance such as expertise or skill is also more success for the team, and more of something that impairs individual performance such as sleep deprivation or stress means also less success for the team.

My colleague Nadira Faber and her colleagues challenge this basic assumption in a new ground-breaking theoretical article, suggesting that this is not necessarily the case3. Rather, they forcefully argue, each individual performance enhancer and performance impairment has the potential to increase or decrease group performance. This has counterintuitive implications not only for your sports team, but also for science communication and policy making.

Group performance is perplexing. Consider the following examples: Basketball plater Patrick Ewing, one of the best to ever play the game of basketball4, injured his Achilles tendon during the conference finals 1999, the last step before reaching the ultimate goal, the NBA finals. The New York Knicks, Ewing’s team, lost their biggest star, and everyone expected the Knicks to lose against the Indiana Pacers. Yet, the Knicks went on to win three of the next four games against the Pacers, and advance to the finals5. Less is more? Football player Luis Suarez, Liverpool’s biggest star in 2014 and Player of the Year in the Premier League, bit another player during the last World Cup and faced a lengthy ban. Liverpool decided to sell him for £75 pounds and has yet to recover from the loss in performance. Less is less? West Germany won the Football World Cup in 1990 and then manager Franz Beckenbauer promised that with the joining players from East Germany, the German team would not lose in the next decade. The worst decade in German football ensued. More is less? In 2003, billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and invested more than $100 in players. Chelsea soon became the fifth English team to win back-to-back league championships since the Second World War. More is more? Did I mention that group performance is perplexing? It is.

How can we understand when more of something good on an individual level such as more competence on the field, more expertise on the panel, or Ritalin before the next budget meeting hurts or helps group performance? And how about impairments – does my sleep deprivation mean that the performance of the Christmas party planning commission will suffer or should I intentionally schedule a pub crawl the night before?

In their article, Faber and colleagues show that the transition from individual level to group level is tricky. Take something obvious such as alcohol consumption. You will not be shocked to learn that research shows that alcohol hurts a person’s decision-making and problem-solving 6. However, when the whole group drinks research repeatedly found that the performance is at least not worse than when no one in a group drinks7. And in some cases, group-drink leads to better decision-making 8. Faber and her colleagues highlight mechanisms that counteract individual impairments in groups. First, when we know that one or more team members are impaired, we are motivated to compensate for the others; motivation and thereby effort increases. Drunken teams take longer time to make decisions, for instance, to improve their decision-making. Second, impaired team members might lead us to monitor the team performance tightly and we will try to improve the coordination in the group, leading to better performances and decisions. So, while you might feel that texting drunk to your boss is a great idea, asking your drunken friends – if conscious – beforehand might help to keep the relationship with your boss intact. An individual impairment does not automatically lead to worse group performance.

And the same is true for individual performance enhancers. What is good for my performance might hurt team performance. Faber and colleagues, for instance, speculate that doping has the potential to hurt, rather the improve team performance. Popping a Ritalin – a “smart drug” – before the next budget meeting might make the next budget worse, and it could depend on the attitudes of the others towards smart drugs. People have rather negative views about drugs that improve our thinking and decision-making, smart drugs are morally not accepted as a way to succeed 9. Hence, knowing that one of the team members took at smart drug might make feel every group success feel tainted, and our motivation and effort will sink. As much as it pains me to write it, Uefa might have it right when it comes to doping in football; individual doping might not improve team performance. Rather, the other players could feel like cheats and stop trying. Successful doping in groups then depends either on secrecy or on an accepting group environment. That also explains why caffeine, a performance enhancer, improves team performance; the positive effects of caffeine on mood and motivation are not tainted by feelings of cheating.

Scientists have something in common with Arsene Wegner, and unfortunately, it is not his salary. Rather, the intuition that if one thing is good for the individual, it is good for the group, and if it is bad for the individual, it is bad for the group. Hence, when we communicate our findings or make policy recommendations, we often base the implications on the assumption that individual and group performance are the same. Policy suggestions based on research on sleep deprivation, for instance, do rarely consider the transition from individual to group 10. Just because about 3 out of 10 students in a class are sleep deprived, does not mean that this impairs the learning in the class room. Sleep deprivation bears still risks for the individual, but might bear less risk for society, since most of the important decisions are made in teams; teams that can compensate for the negative effects on performance.



  1. Savulescu, J. Doping: Russian Cheats or a Failed System? at <http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2015/11/doping-russian-cheats-or-a-failed-system/>
  2. Riach, J. Arsène Wenger accuses Uefa of targeting Arsenal and accepting doping. The Guardian (2015). at <http://www.theguardian.com/football/2015/nov/23/arsene-wenger-accuses-uefa-accepting-doping-arsenal-dynamo-zagreb>
  3. Faber, N. S., Häusser, J. A. & Kerr, N. L. Sleep Deprivation Impairs and Caffeine Enhances My Performance, but Not Always Our Performance: How Acting in a Group Can Change the Effects of Impairments and Enhancements. Personal. Soc. Psychol. Rev. (2015). doi:10.1177/1088868315609487
  4. Patrick Ewing. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2015). at <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Patrick_Ewing&oldid=689962943>
  5. Ewing Theory Revisited. Grantland at <http://grantland.com/features/ewing-theory-revisited/>
  6. Koelega, H. S. Alcohol and vigilance performance: a review. Psychopharmacology (Berl.) 118, 233–249 (1995).
  7. Frings, D., Hopthrow, T., Abrams, D., Hulbert, L. & Gutierrez, R. Groupdrink: The effects of alcohol and group process on vigilance errors. Group Dyn. Theory Res. Pract. 12, 179–190 (2008).
  8. Abrams, D., Hopthrow, T., Hulbert, L. & Frings, D. ‘Groupdrink’? The effect of alcohol on risk attraction among groups versus individuals. J. Stud. Alcohol 67, 628–636 (2006).
  9. Schelle, K. J., Faulmüller, N., Caviola, L. & Hewstone, M. Attitudes toward pharmacological cognitive enhancement—a review. Front. Syst. Neurosci. 8, 53 (2014).
  10. Barnes, C. M. & Drake, C. L. Prioritizing Sleep Health Public Health Policy Recommendations. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 10, 733–737 (2015).
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