The bystander effect is a theory that states that an individual’s likelihood of taking action or making a decision in a situation is lower when others are present. For instance, if a person begins choking in a restaurant with a few other people present, the average bystander is less likely to consider it their personal responsibility to deal with the situation. The likelihood they will jump in and help is lower because they know others are nearby and could help, too. The phrase Diffusion of responsibility refers, in many cases, to the bystander effect. The bystander effect proposes that an individual’s likelihood of intervening decreases even further the more people that are present—such as if the restaurant in question were crowded.
This theory may relate to a number of fields, with two examples being abnormal and social psychology. In abnormal psychology, certain mental health disorders like social anxiety may contribute to the likelihood someone will succumb to the diffusion of responsibility. The theory is even more applicable in social psychology, which studies how individuals interact in groups and are affected by their environments.
Studies in the field of experimental social psychology have been conducted on the diffusion of responsibility, including early experiments done by Bibb Latané and John Darley. For example, this study looked at the concept of diffusion of responsibility and bystander intervention in emergencies.
Diffusion of responsibility, however, also occurs in group settings like work projects or school sports teams. Let’s take a closer look at this concept and how it may affect group dynamics and decision-making.
How Diffusion Of Responsibility Can Be Helpful
When individuals don’t feel responsible for taking action, they may be more likely to consider the perspectives and opinions of others. This mindset and diffusion of responsibility may result in more inclusive and collaborative decision-making.
Another advantage of diffusion of responsibility is that it may allow for a healthy distribution of work. When people feel that they don't have to take on all the responsibility or that there is diffusion of responsibility, they may be more willing to delegate tasks and divide the workload amongst themselves.
How Diffusion Of Responsibility Can Be Harmful
As mentioned earlier, the discussion of diffusion of responsibility occurs, in most cases, in relation to emergency situations. When this or the bystander effect occurs, it’s generally a negative thing, since it may end up that no one takes action to resolve the problem. Groups can experience the same effect in situations where quick decisions that may involve risk-taking need to be made, or members might engage in “social loafing” (putting in less effort because there are other people to pick up their slack). Group members might not speak up to suggest a certain choice or course of action because they assume someone else will, which can delay the decision-making process overall.
Diffusion of responsibility can occur in more extreme situations, like war. One example of diffusion of responsibility comes from the events following World War II known as the Nuremberg Trials. During these trials, members of the Nazi party engaged in moral disengagement, distancing themselves from the atrocities they committed during the war. They claimed they did not have to take responsibility for their actions due to the party’s group size and its infamously harsh leadership. Their argument was summed up by the claim that they were “only following orders.”
Diffusion of responsibility may also lead to a lack of personal accountability among any small or large group, since individuals are less likely to take ownership of their actions if they feel they might not make a significant difference. The result of diffusion of responsibility may be an ineffective group discussion or dynamic, increased aggression, decreased motivation, and poorer overall results.
Strategies For Addressing Diffusion Of Responsibility
When it comes to addressing diffusion of responsibility in a group, assigning people specific roles and responsibilities is usually a good first step to prevent each member from putting in less effort. Doing so may help ensure that individual contributions are acknowledged and that everyone is taking on an appropriate amount of work. Encouraging individuals to take ownership of their actions and be accountable for their decisions instead of diffusion of responsibility can help also maintain an effective group dynamic and promote responsibility attribution. You might also try activities like:
Using a voting system
Encouraging open and honest communication
Similar Phenomena To Watch Out For
If you’re managing or even just a part of a group at work or at school, it can be helpful to be aware of the concept of diffusion of responsibility, and the theoretical integration of similar concepts, so that you can take steps to avoid it or curb it if it occurs. That said, there are a few other, similar phenomena to diffusion of responsibility that you may also want to watch out for in group settings or dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies.
The Harvard Business Review defines groupthink as “quick agreement around status quo solutions with little discussion or deliberation”. It can be a significant barrier to innovation, since it makes people likely to agree with whatever is proposed rather than bringing up their own ideas. To avoid groupthink and group inhibition, you can encourage people to challenge the status quo, have them submit ideas before discussing as a group, and even assign one person to play “devil’s advocate”. This person can be responsible for conducting a direct test of any unanimously accepted idea.
This group social psychology review presents a theory that refers to how people are likely to feel closer to those within their same group than they are with those outside the group—even when the groups are randomly assigned. On the one hand, this bias can help teams in settings like the workplace feel more cohesive—like they’re working with each other and against competitors toward a common goal. On the other hand, it may cause tension in workplaces or schools with multiple groups. If these groups need to work together to achieve common goals, in-group bias may make people identify with their own team’s ideas too strongly without considering those of others.
In this case, the rest of the group is likely to fall in line. The danger of group polarization is, of course, the possibility that the final decision may be too far to one extreme and may not accurately reflect the group’s true consensus. You can find more information about group polarization through a number of sources, including a meta analytic-review like the one shown here or any psychological bulletins relating to the subject.
How Therapy Can Help
If you frequently find yourself practicing diffusion of responsibility, stepping back or afraid to speak up in group situations, therapy is one option that may help. A therapist can provide you with a safe space to work on examining the root of this pattern and then addressing it. For example, they may be able to help you build your self-esteem, polish your communication skills, or work on conflict resolution or boundary setting. Or, if you’re a leader looking to improve your management skills, a therapist may be able to help you with things like assertiveness, confidence, and stress management.
You can meet with a therapist either in person or online. For those who are having trouble locating a suitable provider in their area or simply prefer the comfort, convenience, or cost-effectiveness of online therapy, a platform like BetterHelp is one option. You can fill out a questionnaire about your needs and preferences and get matched with a licensed therapist accordingly. Since research suggests that online and in-person therapy offer similar benefits, you can choose the format that works best for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
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