Why Do Group Projects Suck?

by Brenden Eum

March 30th, 2015

    All eyes are on you as you stand in front of the class. One of your group members is running late, and your other partner doesn’t even know what the project was about. You’re upset you stayed up all last night to finish the PowerPoint since your partners had “seen,” but not responded to your Facebook messages. It’s too bad everyone in your group gets the same grade, since everything is pretty much your work.

    Sometimes, group projects can really suck. I’m sure you have experienced a scenario regrettably similar to the one mentioned above. Most of us have. While it’s easy to place all the blame on others and vent to your professor, there was probably something else you could have done too.

    A new school of economic thought has been gaining some traction lately. Behavioral economics celebrates the marriage of psychology to economics in a new understanding of decision making. It involves the use of games to analyze the behavior of subjects under different criteria. One of these games involves the coordination of two different players to an outcome where both receive the highest individual payoff from working together. It’s called the coordination game, and I like to consider it the antithesis of the prisoner’s dilemma. If you look at Figure A, you can see that when Brad and Angelina do things together, they both benefit more than if they had done things separately. This means when they coordinate by making a movie together or by adopting kids together, they reach an equilibrium which neither player wants to deviate from. This type of equilibrium is called the Nash Equilibrium. For example, if Brad and Angelina adopt kids together, neither Brad nor Angelina would want to change their mind and star in a movie by themselves. This means that when Brad and Angelina adopt kids together, they have reached a Nash Equilibrium.


    At this point you may be thinking “So I coordinate with my group members and then everything turns out peachy, right?” For your sake, I hope so, but it’s not always that easy.

    In 1989, Russell Cooper, Douglas DeJong, Robert Forsythe, and Thomas Ross set up a similar game and let one player go first without letting the other player know what decision was made. They found that without communication, only 48% of pairs were able to coordinate when one player was given the first turn.

    Next, they allowed the first player to tell the second player their choice before decisions were cast. This one-way communication resulted in an increase to 95% coordination among pairs.

    Finally, before decisions were cast, they allowed both players to send each other a message at the same time with their choice written on it. After this initial message, they weren’t allowed to communicate again. Ironically, when both players were allowed to send each other a message before making decisions, only 55% of pairs were able to coordinate.

    These results suggest one-way communication is the most effective method of coordination among pairs who benefit from working together. When it comes to group projects, one-way communication might be the key. Many people are too afraid of stepping on each other’s toes, and as a result, nobody makes a final decision. Instead of letting everyone have a small say, without any real authority, it might be best for you to become the leader and take charge. Listen to what your peers want to do, then step up and delegate jobs to them. Becoming the leader may give you the best chance for the most effective group coordination and highest grade.

    While it’s easy to say a simple coordination game may solve all of our group project problems, not all group projects only involve two people. How can we really trust the application of a two player game to a real-life scenario with multiple people? With this skepticism in mind, let me introduce you to a different kind of coordination game.

    Figure B gives you an example of the minimum effort game. First introduced by John Van Huyck, Raymond Battalio, and Richard Beil in 1990, this coordination game involves you and any number of other people in a group. Along the left column, you have a value from 7 to 1, representing the amount of effort you put into a project (higher means more effort). Along the top row, you have the minimum unit of effort put in by the laziest person in your group. Each value in the chart represents your utility. For instance, if you put in 5 units of effort, and the group minimum was 3 units of effort, then your utility would be 0.70.


    In this minimum effort game, the highest payoff comes when you and everyone in your group puts in the maximum amount of effort. Ironically, Van Huyck, Battalio, and Beil found that over multiple games, people deviate in the opposite direction. Eventually, instead of everyone putting in the maximum effort, everyone puts in the minimum amount. They concluded putting in too much effort was risky when players didn’t know what the other group members would do. For instance, if you put in 7 units of effort and someone else only put in 1 unit of effort, then you would wind up with a 0.10 payoff and they would receive a 0.70 payoff. That doesn’t sound fair at all, so eventually people lost trust in each other and put in minimum effort. This means over time, people deviate towards the lowest payoff Nash Equilibrium.

    Luckily in 2007, Jordi Brandtz and David Cooper figured out a way to help groups coordinate the highest payoff in the minimum effort game. People were split into groups, and each group had a randomly selected manager. Brandtz and Cooper then allowed varying amounts of communication between the members and the manager.

    First, they ran a control group with no communication between the manager and the group. Just like Van Huyck, Battalio, and Beil’s results, all groups eventually started to put in a considerably low amount of effort.

    Next, Brandtz and Cooper experimented with one-way communication between members and their manager. Before people could decide on their amount of effort, the manager would get a chance to send each member a message. Introducing one-way communication significantly increased the average minimum effort of the groups.

    Finally, two-way communication was introduced. This two-way communication differs from the two-way communication mentioned earlier in Cooper, DeJong, Forsythe, and Ross’s game. The manager would first send a message to all the members, and then the members could each send a message back to the manager with a confirmation or advice for the next game. This two-way communication let leaders improve their decisions with feedback from the members. Two-way communication was found to be the most effective method of increasing the average minimum effort.

   Now that we know how to increase the average minimum effort of a group, taking Brandtz and Coopers’ analysis and applying it to our lives is crucial. Poor group project experiences don’t just sprout from others; they are a collaborative effort. If your group isn’t getting anything done, then it’s time to step up as a leader and start making decisions for others. Many people are naturally lazy and will drag the group down. It’s up to you to figure out what will result in the highest payoff and act on it. Become the “manager” and take charge of your group project experience, but don’t forget to listen to feedback from other members. While becoming the leader does require a little bit more effort, I’m sure it beats staying up the night before trying to finish the project on your own.

Brenden Eum is an Editor at the Economics Review at NYU. He can be reached at bde226@nyu.edu. 


Brandtz, Jordi, and David Cooper (2007). “It’s What You Say, Not What You Pay: An Experimental Study of Manager-Employee Relationships in Overcoming Coordination Failure.” Journal of the European Economic Association, vol. 5, pp. 1223-1268.
Cooper, DeJong, Forsythe, and Ross (1989). “Communication in the Battle of the SexesGame: Some Experimental Results,” RAND Journal of Economics, vol. 20, pp. 568-87.
Van Huyck, John, Raymond Battalio, and Richard Beil (1990). “Tacit Coordination Games, Strategic Uncertainty, and Coordination Failure.” American Economic Review, vol. 58, pp. 498-529.