What is Diffusion of Responsibility?

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P
September 9, 2020

Many of us have heard extreme stories of catastrophic events taking place and learning that there were people nearby who did not take action to help a victim in need. This is a perplexing dynamic that has been studied for years, as it’s contradictory to most people’s conditioning to help those in need. Known as diffusion of responsibility, it’s a psychological phenomenon in which individuals in a group setting are less likely to take responsibility and act then if they were alone.

Diffusion of Responsibility

As the size of a group increases, the level of responsibility experienced by individuals decrease. Diffusion of responsibility is considered a type of attribution, in which individuals assume others are responsible or have already taken action to handle the situation. It is a quick and faulty assumption that is made often automatically, without being challenged. 

The alarming story of Kitty Genovese sparked subsequent study of this dynamic. In 1964, she was assaulted, raped, and murdered outside her New York City apartment. During the attack, she screamed for help numerous times and no one came forward to assist, despite having several people close by. The inaction and perceived indifference of bystanders was disturbing and confusing. Certainly witnesses seeing or hearing such pain and suffering would be concerned. So, what held them back from taking action? Social psychologists named this the bystander effect and have studied it since.

Social psychologists John Darley and Bob Latane conducted many research experiments to evaluate, including the Bystander Apathy Experiment. In this study, participating college students were asked to speak to a “group” of other students through a microphone, with each participant being placed alone in a room. However, each participant did not realize that actually the discussions were pre-recorded and only they themselves were live and that no other live students were present. During the discussion, a recording was played of a student experiencing a seizure and calling for help. Of all the students who heard the seizure episode, only 31% of them left their room to seek help from the experimenters. In this study, it shows that a large crowd is not even needed for the diffusion of responsibility to have an impact.

Diffusion of responsibility shows up in real, day to day situations that are less severe as the examples noted. A social diffusion of responsibility example is when individuals do not vote, expecting that other voters will elect their candidate into office. Teachers can assign group projects and students deflect group assignment and contribution, assuming someone else will take care of it.

Group projects at work can also result in the same behaviors. A leader may give a general assignment without specific instructions, so team members can avoid doing the task thinking another will address it. The larger the group, the more places there are for individuals to “hide” from the responsibility and action, whether they are doing it purposefully, or are just being passive about the situation.

One explanation provided for the diffusion of responsibility is considered narrative rationalization. Malcom Gladwell recognized it as a story we tell ourselves that absolves us of responsibility to take action – assuming that someone else has addressed it.

It is important to consider how to mitigate the diffusion of responsibility. We can explore what can help and how we can decrease the negative impacts of this phenomenon. Researchers have explored numerous factors that can increase or decrease the likelihood that it will occur. If bystanders know the victim and have a personal connection, they are more likely to take action. If a victim makes eye contact, they are also more likely to help. If bystanders are unclear about the situation, what is happening and if someone is actually in trouble, they are less likely to take action.

Also, individuals may experience a desire to help yet consider themselves to be unqualified. For example, if someone is having a heart attack or choking in a restaurant, a bystander who does not know first aid or CPR is less likely to feel like their service would be of as much value. A medical professional or individual with such training will likely feel more competent and compelled to step in. Additionally, people with a lack of confidence may be more prone to diffusion of responsibility, as their self-doubt may prevent them from risking taking action.

Lastly, those in positions of leadership (including parents, teachers, politicians, and managers) can reduce the occurrence of diffusion of responsibility by cultivating more personal accountability, increasing awareness, education, fostering connections in groups and communities, and leaving as little ambiguity as possible when assigning responsibilities.

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P

Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.

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