What is the Meaning of Diffusion of Responsibility

From the late sixties until the early seventies, social scientists did a series of experiments and laboratory studies into human behavior in large groups during a crisis situation. This included a stranger suddenly having an epileptic seizure in a crowded room, a young woman screaming for help in a room beside the laboratory where students were taking a test, or a couple of young mean stealing a case of imported beer at a liquor store while the other customers look on. In each scenario, results consistently showed that people in dispersed groups of less than ten members tend to respond quickly to someone in need. The results for large groups in a small area were the exact opposite as everyone experienced a diffusion of responsibility and didn’t respond immediately to the victim’s cries for help. They assumed someone else was calling the police or the paramedics for assistance.

The Genovese Effect and the public’s fearfulness

It goes by many names: bystander apathy, the Genovese Effect, and Diffusion of Responsibility. Each of these terms in social identity theory describes human behavior in a social setting. Contrary to bystander intervention commonly displayed by people who work as first responders (i.e. firemen, doctors, and cops), bystander apathy describes the inaction of ordinary citizens who experience a reduced sense of responsibility to come to somebody’s aid. Some people may say they were not qualified or didn’t know what to do. Others simply assumed someone else have made an emergency call.

The combination of bystander apathy and diffusion of responsibility is called the Genovese Effect, which was named after the 1964 case of murder victim Kitty Genovese. She was stabbed multiple times in the chest and back in the parking lot of her apartment building and later in a dark alleyway near the back entrance. A dozen people or so heard sounds of a struggle, of people talking, of a woman seeming to cry for help, but only few came to her aid. Two people saw the attacker, but didn’t see the actual stabbing of the victim. One man shouted at the attacker while another called the police after several minutes ticked by. In total, the attack took half an hour and during that time the residents in the apartment building were mostly unaware that a woman had been raped and murdered right in their backyard.

Society has changed much since the 1960s, but not necessarily for the better as seen by more recent cases of rape, murder, and robbery. Witnesses or people who happen to be near enough to hear the sounds of a struggle and the victim’s cries repeatedly displayed this kind of behavior. Few responded to calls for help and almost none thought it’s their responsibility to take action when others seemed more up to the heroic task.

Perhaps, at the time Kitty was being attacked society was in the midst of a political and cultural upheaval because Kennedy was just assassinated and everyone was fearful of what’s happening to the country. Yet, this fearfulness didn’t seem to go away. Now, more than ever, people are afraid to get involved in dangerous situations, especially when gang violence, illegal drugs, and corruption in the police force are all too common these days.

Diffusion of Responsibility in an everyday setting

On a much lighter note, this level of apathy is also seen in a group of students working on a class project. The number of people assigned to work on the project would be less inclined to take the initiative unless somebody takes the helm and assigns each person a separate task and hold them responsible for the completion of the project. Without a leader to inspire and motivate others into action, the group is lulled into believing a false consensus that everyone else will be slacking off and nobody wants to be the lackey who ends up doing all the work.

In comparison, kindergartners and preschoolers tested with the same circumstances as the adults displayed the opposite response. In an earlier study by noted psychologist Ervin Staub, he found that the children responded more quickly to sounds of distress in another room when they were with other children rather than when they were alone. He observed that the children talked among themselves and decided to report the problem to an adult or help that person rather than wait for someone to do something. This experiment shows that just as passive bystanders can influence inaction in others, active bystanders can galvanize onlookers into helping the victim and calling 911.

The Bystander Effect and social media

Beyond the feelings of bystanders that they have inadequate skills to provide help or their strong conformist behavior to others doing nothing is the effect of social media on our sense of responsibility towards another human being. Knowing that someone probably needs medical attention doesn’t necessarily push people into action immediately. The desire for public attention intervenes for a few seconds wherein people take a photo of the incident or a selfie with the victim and send that image to friends in their social network.

Through some kind of a universal scale that balances everything, this insensitivity to another person’s suffering or to the emotional pain felt by the victim’s family is set to rights by the greater population’s reactions to such behavior. Most people who made a mistake of “shooting first and doing something later” certainly received public censure ranging from grave insults to harmful threats by angry netizens on various social media sites that they’ve chosen to retreat from public scrutiny and erased their online presence permanently.