The power of us

1234 words; estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 10 seconds.


The social merits of physical activity are widely recognised. In fact, exercising in the company of others seems to be a really powerful motivator for exercise engagement across our lifespans. Sure, some people prefer to work out in solitude, lost in their thoughts, the calming scenery or listening to their jams, but most of us appreciate the benefits of exercising alongside someone else. If you’ve participated in team sports you will likely recall the sense of shared purpose. You’ll probably also recollect pushing yourself harder for the sake of your team, without really giving it much thought. The tendency to do the opposite and cruise or hide in a team setting, while less common in sports, is a reality in workplaces and other physical activity settings. This ‘social loafing’ occurs when individuals judge that their effort will add little to the team’s outcome, or when they feel unnoticed, less motivated, less invested and not personally accountable.

Group pressure

Given that we are interested in obtaining maximal commitment and effort in physical activity, exercise professionals routinely use group exercise settings to extract maximal work from participants. Peer pressure is one thing, but I’m not overly impressed with the strategies that are used on some of the ‘reality’ shows, or in the various iterations of boot camps and extreme physical conditioning that we see in our communities. While that intense pressure and shouting may work for some, there is some obvious harm in terms of injury and overexertion. Less obvious is the likely psychosocial harm associated with shaming and blaming participants to keep up with others. It seems to me that embarrassed and harassed participants are unlikely to commit long term to those sorts of experiences, and to choose an active lifestyle. If we park those extreme applications to the side, there has been some fascinating research around social facilitation in exercise.

The Köhler effect

Back in the 1920s a German industrial psychologist, Otto Köhler, working with rowers observed that weaker participants worked harder in a group setting. He set up a task where 3 rowers performed bicep curls as a group task – so imagine one long bar, weighted so that it could only be raised by the 3 participants together. The bar could only be lifted by 3 people, so as soon as the weakest person quit the other two would be unable to continue the exercise. No surprise really, but he found that the weakest person completed more work and endured longer when working in a team of 3 than they did when working solo.

Group dynamics

Köhler’s experiment (the Köhler effect) is an example of a conjunctive task – in that scenario, the group’s output depends on the contribution of the weakest team member. That’s not unlike tethered mountain climbing, where the team progress up the hill is dictated by the slowest member. In terms of social facilitation and exercise, there are several other variations. Exercise would be ‘disjunctive’ where the efforts of the fittest or strongest member of the team is used as the team’s measure of success – in that scenario, everyone else is really just making up numbers. In an event like a tug of war, the task is ‘additive’ in that everybody contributes in some way to the team’s output. There are also situations where individuals are ‘co-active’ working together but they are not together in any other sense. So two individuals side by side on treadmills in the gym are working individually but they are also exercising in the presence of another. The presence of the other is likely to have some influence, improving or compromising their workout through competition. We have all experienced relays, and those competitive situations are examples of ‘divisible conjunctive’ tasks, which can also work well to get full involvement. Relay members contribute differently to the group’s outcome, but each contribution is essential to their team’s success.

Virtual groups

Samendinger et al (2017) studied a conjunctive task, employing a virtual exercise companion (software-generated partners -SGP) during the completion of a core (planking) exercise. After completing baseline exercises the participants were provided with feedback and then repeated all of the exercises. A control group simply repeated those tests, while the intervention group partnered with an SGP (in slightly better shape than them) and worked with them towards a team score. After correcting for the control condition, the SGP group held their planks for an average of 28.9s longer – a 14% improvement.
Follow up studies by this group have not proven as successful. A 2018 study (Samendinger et al, 2018) used a conjunctive walking task employing a virtual walking companion (via phone app). The task was conjunctive in that participants were told that the team performance was based upon the effort of whoever stopped walking first. Their virtual companion was programmed to always be slightly better than the participant (walking further and never being the first to stop). Despite this, they found that the conjunctive walking resulted in only a 5.5 min increase in weekly walking – hardly practically meaningful. In 2019 the group trialed SGP conjunctive and coactive settings for aerobic training (cycle ergometry alternating between 30 min steady state rides (75% HRmax) and 4 X 4 min intervals (90% HRmax) over 6 days) with the task. Once again the SGP was programmed to always ride slightly faster and be ahead of the individual.  Neither SGP condition performed any better than control participants although all participants were motivated enough to improve their cycling performance.
These latter studies provide us with a timely reminder that some people simply appreciate the company more than the activity,  and may not really relate that well to being in competition with a virtual being. Also if people are already suitably motivated to do their best and are enjoying their physical activity or training, then group manipulations are probably not going to have a marked effect on their efforts.

Trying the Köhler effect

As exercise professionals, we are often blinded by various new and enticing ideas, and we subsequently overlook the obvious. When designing and delivering exercise programmes, it’s worth considering that group relationships during exercise are another thing that we can also manipulate to increase motivation and effort. This may take careful planning and matching of participants’ abilities and motivation levels, but it presents an opportunity to be strategically cunning. Arranging training or exercise so that it is conjunctive and divisible should help to motivate less fit individual(s). Hill (2019) suggests that the least fit member of a group needs to be within 20 – 40% of the fittest, for the Köhler effect to be motivating. For example, we could take the concept of drafting from cycling and use it to motivate participants during high-intensity aerobic intervals. Regardless of the mode of exercise being used, in this example, the individual leading out the group would need to sustain a set exercise intensity for as long as possible in order to allow their teammates time to recover between their high-intensity bouts. I’ve got to think there’s openings here for exercise apps to take more advantage of social effects!
The Köhler effect is not going to be overly satisfying or helpful for the fittest individuals in a group – but maybe that’s where the development of altruism and leadership becomes another important focus within exercise sessions. But when working with a client that appears unmotivated to make an effort or to persist with an exercise session, exercise professionals can consider the Köhler effect and social strategies as another option for enhancing exercise motivation. Used judiciously, strength and conditioning coaches may also find some leverage from the Köhler effect.
Selected references
  1. Hill, C.R. (2019) The Köhler Effect: A Motivational Strategy for Strength and Conditioning. Strength and Conditioning Journal Published ahead of Print
  2. Kerr, N.L., Hertel, G. (2011) The Köhler Group Motivation Gain: How to Motivate the ‘Weak Links’ in a Group. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5(1): 43–55.
  3. Larson, Jr., J.R., Bihary, J.G., Egan, A.C. (2018) Motivation gains on divisible conjunctive group tasks. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 21(8);1125–1143
  4. Samendinger, S., Forlenza, S.T., Winn, B. et al (2017) Introductory dialogue and the Köhler Effect in software-generated workout partners. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 32;131-137.
  5. Samendinger, S., Pfeiffer, K.A., Feltz, D.L. (2018) Testing group dynamics with a virtual partner to increase physical activity motivation. Computers in Human Behavior 88; 168–175.
  6. Samendinger, S., Hill, C.R., Kerr, N.L.,  et al (2019) Group dynamics motivation to increase exercise intensity with a virtual partner. Journal of Sport and Health Science 8; 289-297.

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