Diffusion of Responsibility: What Is It?

By Joanna Smykowski|Updated August 2, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Guilbeault, LMHC

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, this article mentions trauma-related topics, including sexual assault and violence, which could potentially be triggering.

Are Mental Health Challenges Affecting You Negatively?

It's safe to say that most people don't wish harm on others. For the most part, human beings are eager to help each other and look out for one another. So why is it that when people are in a group, they may fail to take action to help others in need? How is it that kind and loving people can see a problem and not do something?

This is due to a socio-psychological phenomenon called diffusion of responsibility 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, in many cases, being in a group has the opposite result. The group becomes the reason people fail to help one another.

While this can occur in almost any group setting, different factors influence to what extent group members are likely to take action.

Does Diffusion of Responsibility Occur Only In Large Group Settings?

Although it is commonly observed in large groups of people, research demonstrates that diffusion of responsibility can occur in groups of as few as three people.

In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was assaulted, raped, and murdered outside her New York City apartment. First, she was stabbed twice, and although 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 understand why no one responded. Two social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latané, conducted experiments exploring this bystander effect.

Darley and Latané conducted an experiment called the Bystander Apathy Experiment. They told university students that they were gathering them together so that they could discuss their personal experiences in college life with one another. However, each student would be alone in their room, speaking to the other students only via a microphone. What the participants didn't know is that they were the only one taking part in the experiment. The rest of the "discussion" was prerecorded, and included one prerecorded student acting as though they were having a seizure and crying out for help. Of the participants who believed they heard the voice of another student experiencing a seizure, only 31% left their room to seek help from the experimenters.

As you can see, it doesn't take a large crowd to prompt people into diffusion of responsibility. A group as small as three is all that’s required. Therefore, it's likely that you've both observed and been involved in this phenomenon.

The Prosocial And Antisocial Conditions

So far, we've only touched on one type of diffusion of responsibility. Here is a brief breakdown of the two types of conditions in which this phenomenon occurs.

Prosocial Conditions

In these situations, individuals in the group may want to take action to help others. However, the presence of others holds them back. One cause for hesitation maybe their lack of confidence or competence. They may be concerned that they are not as good at helping as the others in the group. Another cause is their belief that someone else will act.

Antisocial Conditions

In antisocial conditions, this means that an individual within a group has an easier time committing negative acts because the group grants them a temporary sense of anonymity. Not only does the individual believe that they are less likely to be noticed or caught in a group, but as one study found, this negative behavior occurs because they lose their sense of individuality in the group, along with their sense of personal responsibility for consequences. An example in antisocial conditions is the looting that occurs during an electrical blackout.

The Causes of Diffusion of Responsibility

On their own, most individuals are likely to be proactive when someone is in need and to behave responsibly even when they have the opportunity to do something wrong. But once these individuals become part of a larger group, that sense of accountability may fade. Here some are explanations for this shift in human behavior.

According to social psychologists, this phenomenon occurs when people believe one of two things. On the one hand (prosocial condition), they may think that with others present, someone else will take responsibility. On the other hand (antisocial condition), they may think that with others present, they are not accountable for their action or inaction.

Moreover, these false beliefs can be strengthened or weakened by additional factors. First, let's consider factors that encourage diffusion of responsibility:

  • Confusion

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

  • Larger Group Size

As the number of individuals in the group increases, the sense of responsibility in each member decreases.

  • Biases And Discrimination

If group members hold a discriminatory position toward the individual in question, they are less likely to take action on their behalf. Discrimination may occur on the basis of appearance, gender, race, socioeconomic status, and the like.

Now let's take a look at factors that discourage diffusion of responsibility and lead to individuals taking action, even within a group:

  • 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 help.

  • Personal Connection

This is different from knowing the individual. In fact, connecting with someone on a personal level can be as simple as observing that they are similar to you in some way or making eye contact. 

  • Feelings Of Competence And Confidence

If you see someone drowning but you're a terrible swimmer, you're unlikely to jump in and rescue them. However, if you're a medical professional and you see someone having a heart attack, you are likely to step in to help them.

What Makes Diffusion Of Responsibility More Or Less Likely?

Sexism And Gender Bias

Stereotypes can influence just about everything in our life. For example, a woman in need is more likely to be helped than a man because society has traditionally stereotyped women as “the weaker sex.” Therefore, people may feel more responsibility to assist a woman than a man.

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. This includes writing off important issues as "someone else's problem."

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. Thus, when a problem arises, most employees may stick to their "follower" roles rather than going out on a limb and taking initiative.

Fraud, disengagement, and unethical behavior all flourish in workplaces because the work community diminishes the sense of accountability and personal responsibility.

Examples Of Diffusion Of Responsibility

As you read about diffusion of responsibility, you may recall moments in your own life that are examples of this social phenomenon. Here are examples—both specific and general—of diffusion of responsibility:

  • The murder of Kitty Genovese
  • Rosa Parks being forcibly removed from a bus filled with people
  • 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

How To Overcome Diffusion Of Responsibility

Are Mental Health Challenges Affecting You Negatively?

It doesn't do much good to blame and shame individuals for diffusion of responsibility. It is a social phenomenon that, for better or for worse, happens to even the and kindest and most ethical of us.

That being said, there are ways to go against the grain and take personal responsibility, no matter how large the group you find yourself in. Here are some ways to overcome diffusion of responsibility:

  • Cultivate empathy with the individuals in distress. 
  • Focus on addressing individuals rather than groups of people. For example, if you are in a leadership position, ask specific people to do specific tasks, rather than sending general requests for help. 
  • Provide greater incentives and rewards to encourage accountability. 
  • Finally, as Mahatma Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." Remember that you ultimately have two choices. You can either go with the flow or act as you wish everyone would.

The Benefits of Online Therapy

As discussed above, therapy can help you create a more meaningful life in accord with your values. But sometimes attending in-person sessions can be difficult. This is where online therapy comes in. You can access BetterHelp’s platform from the comfort and privacy of your own home. There’s no need to sit in traffic or take time out of your busy workday to drive to your appointment; you can speak with your licensed therapist from wherever you have an internet connection. BetterHelp’s licensed therapists have helped clients live values-based lives. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“I am very grateful to have found Barb. I felt comfortable with her right away. I am a therapist myself and felt hesitant about being able to find the right fit. Barb is always compassionate. She lets me decide the direction of therapy based on my values and priorities. She offers insightful guidance that has helped me come to a deeper understanding of myself.”

“Susan is an excellent therapist. She sees the difficulties in one’s life but challenges one to make changes in a positive path. She does not lose sight of the important values as defined by the client.”

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