What Is Diffusion Of Responsibility And How Does It Show Up In Real Life?

By: Joanna Smykowski

Updated February 13, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering.

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It's safe to say that most people don't wish harm on other individuals. That is to say, there are very few individuals who are inherently evil and cynical. However, why is it that when people are in a group, they fail to take action and help others in need? How is it that kind and loving people can see a problem and not do something? It's all because of something psychologists call diffusion of responsibility. And chances are, you've seen it in your life, too.

What Is Diffusion Of Responsibility?

The diffusion of responsibility definition is simply this: It's a socio-psychological phenomenon, in which individuals in a group setting are less likely to take responsibility and act than if they were alone.

Normally, people are bolstered by their communities. However, with the diffusion of responsibility, the community doesn't encourage people to take responsibility. Instead, the community is the reason why people don't support one another.

Take, for example, a situation in which someone has a stroke or seizure. If a group of people witnessed this incident, the chances of anyone from the crowd taking responsibility and helping the individual decrease - all because of diffusion of responsibility.The more the group increases in size and number, the more each person's sense of responsibility decreases. And while diffusion of responsibility can occur in almost any group setting, different factors influence how much action or inaction each is likely to take.

Does Diffusion Of Responsibility Occur Only In Large Group Settings?

Although diffusion of responsibility is commonly observed in large groups of people, research demonstrates that this phenomenon shows up in groups with as few as three people.

Back in 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was assaulted, raped and murdered outside her New York City apartment. First, she was stabbed twice, and though she screamed for help, no one came to her rescue, even though witnesses were present. Soon after, the attacker returned to stab Genovese several times more before raping her and leaving her to die.

Following this shocking story, researchers wanted to know what drove such indifference and inaction among the witness and the other tenants in Genovese's building. Two social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latané, conducted many experiments exploring this bystander effect, and in one study, participants were given a questionnaire to complete. While they were filling out the form, their room was gradually filled with smoke.

Of the participants, there were three groups. The first was comprised of three naive people. The second group included one naive person and two individuals who knew the smoke was part of the experiment. Finally, group three consisted of individuals who completed the questionnaire alone.

The people who were completely alone reported the smoke problem 75% of the time. In the second group (two aware individuals and one naive individual), the likelihood of anyone reporting the smoke dropped to 38%. The group made up of entirely naive people only spoke up 10% of the time.

Darley and Latané conducted another telling experiment, called the Bystander Apathy Experiment, and it's also very telling.

They gathered up university students and told them that they were going to discuss with one another their personal experiences in college life. But this wasn't your typical group discussion. In this experiment, each student was alone in his or her room, speaking to the other students via a microphone. In this way, the students never saw who was talking. What the participants didn't know is that only one student would be taking part. The rest of the "discussion" was pre-recorded presentations. One pre-recorded student has a seizure and calls for help.

Of all the participants who heard the voice of another student experiencing a seizure, only 31% of them left their room and sought help from the experimenters.

As you can see, it doesn't take a large crowd to prompt people into the diffusion of responsibility. As few as three is all that's needed for people to stop taking responsibility. Therefore, even if you don't find yourself in large crowds, it's likely that you've both observed and been involved in the diffusion of responsibility in your daily life.

The Prosocial And Antisocial Conditions Of Diffusion Of Responsibility

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So far, we've only touched on one condition of diffusion of responsibility, so here's a brief breakdown of the two conditions in which this phenomenon occurs.

Prosocial Conditions

In these situations, the individuals within the group may want to take actions. However, the presence of everyone else holds them back. Another cause for hesitation maybe their lack of confidence or competence. Perhaps these individuals aren't sure if they will do the right thing, and with so many people watching, this may be a risk they're not willing to take.

Antisocial Conditions

When it comes to antisocial conditions, an individual within a group has an easier time committing negative actions because the group supersedes his personhood and grants him or her temporary anonymity.

"In a group so large, who will notice me?" these individuals can ask. As this study found, this negative behavior "is driven by the deindividuating effects of group membership and the diffusion of feelings of personal responsibility for consequences."

The Causes Of Diffusion Of Responsibility

Some individuals, by themselves, are more likely to take responsibility and act. But once they become part of a larger group, that sense of responsibility and accountability fades away. Why is that?

Here are explanations for this fascinating shift in human behavior:

False Beliefs

According to social psychologists, diffusion of responsibility occurs when people believe one of two things. First, they either think that with so many people present, someone else is bound to take responsibility. Or, they think that with so many people around, they would never be held accountable for their inaction.

Then, these false beliefs can either strengthen or weakened by many different factors. First, let's consider factors that encourage diffusion of responsibility.

  • Confusion versus Clarity

If individuals aren't sure what's going on, the chances of them stepping in and taking action decrease significantly.

  • Increase In Group Membership

If the amount of individuals in the group increases, the sense of responsibility in each member decreases respectively.

  • Biases And Discrimination

If group members hold a discriminatory position toward the individual or concept in question, they are less likely to take action, too. Discrimination can include appearance, gender, race, and socioeconomic status.

Now, let's take a look at factors that would discourage diffusion of responsibility and lead to more individuals taking action.

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  • Knowing The Individual

Seeing your best friend in distress will create a stronger emotional response than if you saw a stranger. Therefore, if you're familiar with the individual in question, you're more likely to resist diffusion of responsibility.

  • Personal Connection

This is different from knowing the individual. In fact, connecting with someone on a personal level can be as simple as observing similarities between themselves, eye contact, or if the individual is referencing someone specific. These small actions can increase a person's sense of responsibility.

  • Feelings Of Competence And Confidence

If you see someone drowning, but you're a terrible swimmer, you're not very likely to jump in and rescue the individual. However, if you're a medical professional, and you see someone in physical duress, you might feel qualified to handle the situation, and if so, you'd be more likely to go against the grain and take responsibility.

When Is Diffusion Of Responsibility Less Likely?

Sexism And Gender Bias

Stereotypes can often influence individuals within a group. For example, a woman in need is more likely to be helped out than a man because our society sometimes perceives females as the weaker sex. Therefore, people may feel more responsibility to assist a woman rather than a man.

Diffusion of Responsibility In The Workplace

To keep things fair among colleagues, managers sometimes assign an equal amount of work to each employee. Unfortunately, this approach can backfire in two ways.

For one thing, employees can hyper-focus on their tasks, and ignore the bigger picture or problem at hand. They can write off other issues as "someone else's" problem.

Otherwise, since each employee is given equal amounts of work, they don't see the value of their input, and therefore, they withhold quality and value. After all, everyone is working, too, so they may not believe their contribution will hold much value.

Another workplace example of diffusion of responsibility is when the pronounced leader is expected to solve every problem, even if innate leadership exists in other employees. They may prefer to remain as a "follower" rather than to go out on a limb and take the initiative.

Fraud, disengagement and unethical behavior all flourish within a community workplace environment because the crowd diminishes the sense of accountability and personal responsibility.

Social Situations Showing Diffusion Of Responsibility

As you read about the diffusion of responsibility, you may recall moments in your own life that are examples of this social phenomenon. Here are several ways in which diffusion of responsibility shows up in real life scenarios, both past, and present:

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  • The murder of Kitty Genovese
  • Rosa Parks being forcibly removed from a bus filled with people
  • Crimes against humanity, including the Holocaust
  • The Human Rights Crisis in the Maldives, which human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, has repeatedly brought to the attention of lawmakers and leaders
  • People witnessing a medical emergency or accident and not calling 9-1-1
  • Expecting political leaders and company CEO's to create resolutions
  • Expecting others to vote politicians into office, assuming that your vote doesn't count

How To Overcome Diffusion Of Responsibility

It doesn't do much good to blame and shame individuals for falling into the diffusion of responsibility. It is a social phenomenon that, for better or for worse, does happen to even the best and kindest of us.

That being said. However, there are ways to swim upstream, go against the grain, and take personal responsibility for what you're observing, no matter how big your crowd is. Here are some guidelines to overcome diffusion of responsibility:

  • Cultivate inside yourself an internal motivation, such as personal empathy with the individual. For example, if you see a fellow female struggling, go to her as an act of female solidarity. Or, if you see something happening that goes against your inner values and morals, let these be the driving force, propelling you to act.
  • Focus on addressing individuals rather than collective groups of people. Therefore, if you occupy a leadership position, ask specific people to do specific tasks, rather than send general emails with overreaching requests. By getting specific and targeting one person at a time, you can help to decrease diffusion of responsibility and increase workplace productivity and integrity.
  • Provide greater incentives and rewards to encourage accountability and greater action. This again is a great idea if you're in a leadership position. Knowing that there's a reward for taking responsibility can keep people from shirking them altogether.
  • Finally, as Mahatma Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." Therefore, if you observe diffusion of responsibility and dislike it, you have one of two choices. You can either go with the flow, or you can be the change you expect others to be and do.

Diffusion of responsibility shows up in very real situations - some benign and others far more grave, as we've seen. However, that doesn't mean that it's something to accept and brush off merely. Even though it is a social phenomenon, diffusion of responsibility doesn't have to be the reason why people can't exhibit empathy and help, and in some cases, heroism.


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