When People Feel Connected They Work Harder

Research shows that even when you think you belong to a team you work harder.

Posted Apr 22, 2016

Gregory Walton is a professor at Stanford who has studied the important effects of belonging on behavior. In one of his experiments, Walton (2012) found that when college students believed they shared a birthday with another student, they were more motivated to complete a task with that student and performed better on the task than if they were not told about any connection. He found the same effect with four- and five-year-olds.

In another experiment with Walton, David Cwir (2011) had people who were part of the experiment jog in place in pairs, raising their heart. Participants who felt they were socially connected to their running partner (for example, were told they had the same birthday) had an increase in their heart rate as the other person’s heart rate increased from jogging. They also rated the other person as being more connected to them than people who were not told they had the same birthday.

Cwir and Walton concluded that it’s easy for people to take on the goals, motivations, emotions, and even physical reactions of people whom they feel even minimally connected to.

The social facilitation effect — When people think they’re working together, they work better and longer, and enjoy it more. Research on the “social facilitation effect” goes all the way back to 1920. Floyd Allport (1920) conducted a series of experiments with male college students. In some situations, students worked on word association or writing tasks in a room alone; in other situations, they worked in a group, although all the work was done individually. Allport controlled carefully for things like light and noise.

Here’s what he found:

  • People working in a group came up with ideas faster (from 66% to up to 93% faster) than people working alone.
  • People working in a group came up with more ideas than people working alone.
  • Most individuals did better in the group settings, but a few people who were, in Allport’s words, “nervous and excitable,” showed no difference or a slight decrease when they were with the group.

Priyanka Carr and Gregory Walton (2014) did a more recent series of experiments where they implied that people were working together, when actually everyone was working alone.

In the psychologically together group, participants were told that the study investigated how people work on puzzles together and that they and the other participants would each work on a puzzle called the “map puzzle.” Participants in this together group were told that, after working on the puzzle for several minutes, they would either be asked to write a tip for another person working on the puzzle, or they would receive a tip from another participant also working on the map puzzle. The experimenter explained the puzzle, told the participant to take as much or as little time as they wanted on the puzzle, and then left the room.

A few minutes later the experimenter came back and gave the participant a tip that said, “Here’s a tip one of the other participants here today wrote for you to help you as you work on the puzzle.” The tip was actually from the experimenter, but was presented as though it was from another participant. It had a “To” line with the participant’s first name, and a “From” line with the supposed first name of another participant.

In the psychologically separate group, the experimenter told participants that the research investigated how people work on puzzles and that they would work on a puzzle called the “map puzzle.” The instructions implied that the other participants in the study were working on the same puzzle but no mention was made of working together.

Participants in this separate group were told that, after working on the puzzle for several minutes, they would either be asked to write a tip for or would receive a tip from the experimenter about the puzzle. When they received a tip it said, “Here’s a tip we wrote for you to help you as you work on the puzzle” and it was presented as being from the experimenter. Instead of “To” and “From,” there was a “For” line with the participant’s first name. Otherwise the instructions were the same as for the psychologically together group.

The participants in the together group worked longer on the puzzle, rated the puzzle as being more enjoyable, performed better, and were more likely to choose to work on a related task one to two weeks later than those in the separate group.


  • When you want your target audience to feel connected to your brand or product, point out anything that you share in common with them.
  • When you’re designing in a team, make sure to point out things that the team members have in common, even if they seem small and superficial.

Here's the research references:

Allport, Floyd Henry. 1920. "The Influence of the Group Upon Association and Thought." Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3: 159-182.

Carr, P. B. and Gregory Walton. (2014). Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivationJournal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 169-184.

Cwir, D., P.B. Carr, Gregory Walton, and S.J. Spencer. 2011. “Your heart makes my heart move: Cues of social connectedness cause shared emotions and physiological states among strangers.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 661-664.

Walton, Gregory M., Geoffrey Cohen, David Cwir, and Steven Spencer. 2012. “Mere belonging: The power of social connections.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(3): 513–32. DOI: 10.1037/a0025731