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Diffusion of Responsibility

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Diffusion of Responsibility

If you were in an emergency situation, would you call 9-1-1 or would you wait for someone else to do it?

  • What is diffusion of responsibility?
  • What causes diffusion of responsibility?
  • What are examples of diffusion of responsibility?

Diffusion of Responsibility Definition

As you might be able to piece together from the name, this social psychological principle deals with people avoiding responsibilities. While this might sound familiar to many – procrastinating on homework, not doing your chores, or “forgetting” to help your sister – diffusion of responsibility takes place in groups of people.

Diffusion of responsibility is the principle that states that responsibility in responding is shared amongst everyone present. When there are more people around, each individual is less likely to act responsibly because that responsibility that they should feel is spread out over everyone there. On the other hand, when there are fewer people around, there is a smaller amount of diffusion, so people feel more responsible.

You might be thinking that there’s no way this could happen to you. However, chances are, it probably already has and you haven’t even realized it.

Causes of Diffusion of Responsibility

The leading (and by far most important) cause of diffusion of responsibility is the number of people present. When more people are around us, we feel less pressure to act out of the norm to take responsibility. If no one else is helping, why should I? In a similar vein, we might think that it’s okay if I don’t help because someone else will. How can you be so sure? Is everyone around you also thinking the same thing? When there are many people around, the pressure to do the right thing is spread out amongst everyone present, resulting in no one willing to do the right thing since there is no weight of the responsibility weighing on any one person.

Silhouettes of people in a line. StudySmarterHow small does the group have to be to thwart diffusion of responsibility? pixabay.com.

Another factor of diffusion of responsibility is the person involved. Imagine you’re driving down a country road and see a car broken down on the side of the road. You drive past it with no plans to help (as do all the other cars) until you look in the rearview mirror and see that the person broken down is your best friend. You’ll stop for your best friend! As you can glean from this example, diffusion of responsibility is less likely to happen to you when you know the person.

The third cause of diffusion of responsibility is a lack of knowledge about the issue at hand. Pretend you’re at the mall and see a person fall and twist their ankle. The mall’s busy so there are lots of people walking around. You don’t know anything about how to determine if that’s serious so you assume that someone who’s in the medical field would respond to that situation better so you don’t have to help. The responsibility is diffused among all the people who don’t know what to do. On the other hand, if you were a nurse or doctor, you would probably be more likely to help considering you know how to respond.

Examples of Diffusion of Responsibility

The most famous example of diffusion of responsibility is Kitty Genovese. Kitty Genovese was walking home one night when she was attacked by an armed man outside of her apartment complex. He stabbed her but she was able to run away, screaming as loud as she could. Even though she was outside of her apartment building and there were people home, no one came down to help her or even called the police. Although Kitty got away the first time, she wasn’t as lucky the second time. Kitty ended up dying outside her building due to the wounds she got from the man. The police could have come in time but no one called. Why?

Diffusion of responsibility! All of Kitty’s neighbors, despite watching out their windows, assumed that someone else would be the one to call the police. When the responsibility to contact the police was spread across all the neighbors, no one specific neighbor felt inclined to do so. Since one of the main causes of diffusion of responsibility is the number of people there, there were high levels of diffusion because there were many neighbors watching. If it wasn’t nighttime and there weren’t many people home, Kitty might have had a chance at someone calling the police since there would have been fewer people to share the responsibility.

While this study shows diffusion of responsibility, it also shows the bystander effect. These two principles go hand in hand. The bystander effect happens when people are less likely to respond in an emergency situation when there are others present. So in this instance, the bystander effect was present since Kitty’s neighbors assumed that the others watching out their windows would call for help so they didn’t have to. When the bystander effect is happening, diffusion of responsibility is most likely the reason why.

Kitty Genovese was a case study example since there was no manipulation of variables. This tragedy occurred and psychologists realized that diffusion of responsibility was a key principle in the lack of response. So, what about a study with manipulated variables? Soon after Kitty’s murder, social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané wanted to answer that question.

Darley and Latané’s study took place in a lab. They told the participants (students at a university) that they were going to be talking to other students about life in college through a headset. The participants couldn’t see the other students but could only hear their voices. In reality, there were no other students. The voices heard through the headsets were pre-recorded and during the session, one of the other students had a seizure that could be heard on the headset. The independent variable was how many other students the participant thought they were talking with.

Image of a man with a headset on. StudySmarterWould you have responded if you heard someone seizing through a headset? pixabay.com.

So did the participants call for help when they heard one of the other “students” having a seizure? It depends on how many other people they thought they were talking with. When it was just the participant and the seizing student, 85% of the participants responded to the emergency. However, when there was the participant, the seizing student, and a third student, the rate of the participant getting help drastically dropped to 62%. When there was a fourth student, the participant got help only 31% of the time and the rates continued to decrease the more people the participant thought they were interacting with.

This experimental study, just like the case study of Kitty Genovese, shows the effects of the diffusion of responsibility. When the participants thought that there were other participants who were also hearing the emergency, they reacted at significantly lower rates than if they were the only person hearing the emergency.

Diffusion of Responsibility in Psychology

So now that we understand diffusion of responsibility, how do we avoid it? One of the best ways to avoid it is to stop its anonymity. If possible in an emergency situation, point to a specific person and tell them to help. When one person is told to react, they are less likely to succumb to the diffusion of responsibility since they have been specifically told to do something. The person can’t tell themselves that someone else will react when they have a task to do.

Diffusion of responsibility can happen outside of an emergency situation.

You could be at soccer practice and after practice is over your coach tells the team to clean up the field. Since the whole team’s on the field, the responsibility isn’t going to fall on one person’s shoulders, so no one feels inclined to clean up. Your coach could tell you specifically to clean up or take another approach.

She could say that just the midfielders have to clean up, making the group smaller for the responsibility to diffuse over. Since there are fewer people in that subgroup of the team, each person would feel more responsible. Before she left, she could also set expectations and tell the team that they would have to run a mile for every item that wasn’t picked up. Each player would know there are consequences if they choose not to clean up and would therefore reduce the diffusion of responsibility.

Diffusion of Responsibility - Key Takeaways

  • Diffusion of responsibility is the principle that states that responsibility in responding is shared amongst everyone present so people feel less individual responsibility
  • The leading cause of diffusion of responsibility is the number of people in the group. The more people around, the more diffusion of responsibility.
  • Kitty Genovese's murder is an example of diffusion of responsibility (and bystander effect). She was killed outside her apartment building where people heard her crying for help, but no one called the police in time. They all assumed someone else would.
  • The top two ways to stop diffusion of responsibility are giving people specific tasks to do and reducing group size

Frequently Asked Questions about Diffusion of Responsibility

Diffusion of responsibility is the principle that states that responsibility in responding is shared amongst everyone present.

Diffusion of responsibility most frequently occurs in large groups. 

Diffusion of responsibility is caused by people assuming that others will act so they don’t have to. Not one single person is responsible, so that responsibility gets shared by the whole group. 

Diffusion of responsibility can be decreased by singling out a person and telling them what to do. 

An example of diffusion of responsibility is the murder of Kitty Genovese. She was killed outside her apartment building where people heard her crying for help, but no one called the police in time. They all assumed someone else would. 

Final Diffusion of Responsibility Quiz

Question

What is diffusion of responsibility?

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Answer

Diffusion of responsibility is the principle that states that responsibility in responding is shared amongst everyone present

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When does diffusion of responsibility most often occur?

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Diffusion of responsibility most frequently occurs in large groups

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What's the main cause of diffusion of responsibility?

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People assuming that others will act so they don’t have to. Not one single person is responsible so that responsibility gets shared by the whole group. 

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Question

What is an example of diffusion of responsibility?

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Answer

The murder of Kitty Genovese. She was killed outside her apartment building where people heard her crying for help, but no one called the police in time. They all assumed someone else would. 

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What other psychological principle is often linked to diffusion of responsiblity?

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Answer

Bystander effect

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Why was Kitty Genovese not saved?

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Her neighbors assumed others were dealing with the situation (diffusion of responsibility and bystander effect)

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What is an experimental study about diffusion of responsibility?

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Darley and Latané’s fake seizure study

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What were the findings of Darley and Latané’s fake seizure study?

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If the participant was just talking to the person seizing, they would go get help 85% of the time but if there were any more people than just themselves, the percentage drastically dropped

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How do the findings of Darley and Latané’s fake seizure study show diffusion of responsibility?

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Answer

When there were more people involved, participants didn't respond as much because the responsibility of them acting was spread among the other people too

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Does diffusion of responsibility happen only in emergencies?

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No! It can happen anytime something is asked of a group

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Why does making the group smaller reduce diffusion of responsibility?

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There are fewer people for the responsibility to get diffused over so they will be more likely to act appropriately 

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Why does setting expectations reduce diffusion of responsibility?

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Then there are understood consequences that will happen if diffusion of responsibility does occur

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Why does singling someone out reduce diffusion of responsibility?

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Then the person feels the expectations and knows it's their job

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Do you realize when you're succumbing to diffusion of responsibility?

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Answer

Maybe, but most often no. You justify your actions in your head and then carry on with your life. 

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How does your knowledge on the situation affect your diffusion of responsibility?

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Answer

If the issue is something that you know about, you’re more likely to help than if it's not

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