The Köhler Effect

Teamwork has an eminently symmetrical nature. However, when some members parasitize the work of others, mechanisms are often put in place to maintain motivation in order to finish a group task.
The Köhler Effect
Gorka Jiménez Pajares

Written and verified by the psychologist Gorka Jiménez Pajares.

Last update: 13 February, 2023

Have you ever worked in a group? If so, you may be able to recall some situations in which you’ve felt highly motivated and others in which you’ve felt exhausted. In fact, as a human being, you use two strategies to enhance your motivation when working in a group. You try to compensate socially and you make use of the Köhler effect.

In groups, there are sometimes members who parasitize. This means that the overall workload can end up being uneven which affects individual motivation. The end result is a loss of quality. To a certain extent, this can also be applied to human groups as a whole. Therefore, it can be seen at the work level, as well as in families and friendships.

“The free rider problem occurs when one of the members of the group makes less effort because they consider that their contribution is dispensable.”

-Fernando Molero-

Intercultural group works as a team
When performance is increased for fear of harming the group, the Köhler effect occurs.

How to avoid the loss of motivation

Group tasks are the sum of the contributions that each member makes individually. One workplace example can be seen in a car production chain: a car ready to be sold is the result of multiple individual contributions.

We can also apply it to the family environment. A family is a group in which each member fulfills a role. One example of parasitism in a family would be a husband who doesn’t do any household chores, so his wife takes care of everything. The result can be a decrease in the well-being of the woman and a loss in the quality of the marital relationship.

“Teamwork is the secret that makes common people achieve uncommon results.”

-Ifeanyi Enoch Onuoha-

Social compensation

People become members of groups because they contribute something to them or have shared goals. In the case of the production chain, the goal is the car. In a family example, the goal might be to have a child and grow old together.

However, what can be done to avoid losing motivation if there are people parasitizing the group? Social compensation is a response mechanism by which one or several people work more when they perceive that other individuals in the group are performing less.

In effect, they compensate for the other’s lack of skills or the lack of motivation they demonstrate for the task. Fernando Molero (2017) claims that a member of a group will make more effort if they think that the performance of another in the group is insufficient to achieve a common goal. Or, if the common goal is extremely important.

“It’s great to do what you love, but greater with the great team.”

-Lailah Gifty Akita-

The Kohler effect

“This is so important to them. I’m really afraid of doing it wrong.” This phrase constitutes the core of the Köhler effect. It consists of an increase in performance due to the fear of harming the group in some way.

This curious effect occurs in individuals who feel inferior or less capable. The fear of failure in the group objective increases their motivation. Why does this occur?

By an upward directional impulse

When we compare ourselves with other members of a group, we might feel motivated to improve. We tend to compare ourselves with the people who perform the most. As a result of this comparison, we try to perform in the same way.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

-Isaac Newton-

Big brother taking care of little brother
A child may perceive themselves as less capable than their parents in caring for their sibling. However, they try to take care of them the best they can.


In conjunctive tasks, the poor performance of one individual affects the rest. A conjunctive task is one in which the contribution of each person is essential to reach the goal. It’s why some people come to believe they’re indispensable. This is the case of many housewives who lack the help of other family members: “If I don’t look after the house, who will?” they ask themselves.

As we mentioned earlier, there are two processes that prevent a loss of motivation within a group: social comparison and the Köhler effect. In addition, in the specific case of the Köhler effect, it’s been observed that the upward directional impulse occurs more frequently in men, while guilt is more frequent in women.

“Cooperation is the thorough conviction that nobody can get there unless everybody gets there.”

-Virginia Burden-

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Alonso, M. F. (2017). Psicología de los grupos. UNED.
  • Bezanilla, J. M., & Miranda, M. A. (2013). La familia como grupo social: una re-conceptualización. Alternativas en psicología, 17(29), 58-73.
  • Stroebe, W., Diehl, M., & Abakoumkin, G. (2018). Social compensation and the Köhler effect: Toward a theoretical explanation of motivation gains in group productivity. In Understanding group behavior (pp. 37-65). Psychology Press.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.