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Diffusion of responsibility: What it is, examples and how to fight it

Do you feel responsible for others and are quick to intervene? Or, is it difficult for you to insert yourself into situations, especially when other people are around? 

If you relate more to the latter, you’re experiencing diffusion of responsibility. This is a common psychological experience that affects people of all backgrounds, education levels, and ages. Researchers have even noticed the diffusion of responsibility in children as young as five years old.  

Table of contents

What is diffusion of responsibility?

The definition of diffusion of responsibility, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, is “the diminished sense of responsibility often experienced by individuals in groups and social collectives.” 

Essentially, people feel less responsible for outside situations or events when they are surrounded by others. Since there are people around and no designated ‘leader’ of the crowd, there’s an assumption that someone else will take care of the situation and you have no responsibility for what happens or how those circumstances play out.

What is the diffusion of personal responsibility?

Similar to diffusion of responsibility—which, again, refers to your lack of responsibility within a group—diffusion of personal responsibility is a bit more personalized to you. 

This means you don’t take any accountability for the outside situations you observe (whether you’re in a group or not), even when you notice there might be a need for help. However, since it doesn’t affect you and you may not be familiar with the situation or person in need, you don’t feel any personal responsibility to intervene. 

What is an example of diffusion of responsibility?

Imagine you are in Times Square while on a trip to New York City. As you’re exploring the area (and navigating through the endless crowds), you notice a woman who has fallen down and is obviously in serious pain and unable to get up. 

While you’re immediately uncomfortable, you look around and notice all of the other people around you and the woman. “Someone must have already called emergency services or run to get help,” you think to yourself. “So, she’s probably taken care of.” You shake the thought to do something out of your mind and continue to enjoy sightseeing, leaving the responsibility to care for the woman to someone else. 

Because so many people are present in the situation, it’s easy to pass off the responsibility to a fellow bystander or assume another person has already taken care of it. Plus, if you have little experience helping someone with an injury, you may feel unqualified to insert yourself into the moment. However, if everyone feels the same way and shirks responsibility, no action will be taken which ends poorly for the person in need. 

Sound familiar? You may have also heard this concept discussed as the bystander effect

Is diffusion of responsibility related to the bystander effect?

Yes, the two terms are closely connected. In fact, diffusion of responsibility is a leading cause of the bystander effect. 

The bystander effect can happen for many reasons, whether it be pure ignorance of the situation, fear of being judged, and diffusion of responsibility when a group of people is present. Research has also shown that the more bystanders present when a situation occurs, the less likely someone is to intervene. 

A real-life example of diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect

One of the most famous examples of how the bystander effect has played out is with the murder of Kitty Genovese

Kitty was returning home from work at 2:30 a.m. on March 13, 1964, when she was grabbed by a man with a knife and stabbed. She screamed, and a man in the apartment building yelled at the attacker to leave her alone, causing the attacker to run. However, as Kitty lay seriously injured outside her apartment building, the attacker returned and killed her. 
What prompted this story to become a bystander effect legend is the New York Times article that ran after Kitty’s death, reporting 37 of Kitty’s neighbors heard and witnessed her murder, but didn’t call the police or intervene. Some of Kitty’s neighbors claimed they “didn’t want to get involved” when they heard her being attacked, showing how diffusion of responsibility can have a significant impact when everyone avoids stepping up to handle the situation.

Studies on diffusion of responsibility

In the 1960s, researchers John Darley and Bibb Latané conducted a series of experiments where they asked participants to fill out questionnaires in a room. Here’s the catch: the room would suddenly fill with smoke. 

In one scenario of the experiment, the participants were alone in the room when the smoke began to come in. A majority (75%) of the participants reported the smoke to researchers right away. 

In another scenario, there was one participant and two other people who were part of the experiment in the room. The two people who were part of the experiment were instructed to ignore the smoke, causing only 10% of the participants to report the smoke.

The third scenario had three participants—all of which were naive to the experiment—in a room when it suddenly began to fill with smoke. Only 38% of the participants reported the smoke in that situation. 

As part of their conclusions from these experiments, Darley and Latané believed that once someone notices that something is happening, that person must make multiple rapid actions and decisions:

  1. Notice the problem
  2. Decide if what they are seeing is an emergency
  3. Decide to take personal responsibility to act
  4. Decide what needs to be done
  5. Take action

Since these decisions need to be made quickly and often in the middle of a stressful situation, it can be easier for people to shake off any personal responsibility and walk away from the situation. Oftentimes, the answers aren’t easy and the unknown can be even more frustrating and stressful for the individual—which is what makes the easy way out an enticing solution. 

Which factor most affects the diffusion of responsibility?

The amount of people present seems to have the biggest impact on the diffusion of responsibility. The more bystanders present, the more likely an individual will expect someone else to take action and avoid taking any responsibility themselves. 

Other factors that influence the diffusion of responsibility

  • Familiarity: Another factor that affects the diffusion of responsibility is the relationship someone has with the person in need of help. If you know the person or feel somewhat of a connection to them, you will be more likely to help. 
  • Direct communication: If the person in need makes eye contact with you or directly asks you for help, that also increases the chances that you’ll intervene. People have a harder time feeling zero accountability if they've been directly asked to do something.
  • Knowledge: Sometimes it’s difficult for people to step in if they feel unqualified to help. For example, if someone is having car troubles, you might be hesitant to help because you don’t know the first thing about car repairs. However, if you’re a mechanic, you’ll be far more likely to see if you can assist.
  • Clarity: In complex or chaotic situations, it can be difficult to understand what the problem is, which makes it more difficult for someone to take action. If the issue is clear cut, it’s easier to see where or how you may be able to help.
  • Biases or discrimination: If someone has preconceived notions about the person in need of assistance—whether it be because of their race, gender or perceived socioeconomic status—they may be less likely to help.

Is diffusion of responsibility real?

While it may seem hard to believe, diffusion of responsibility is real and occurs throughout the world. It can sometimes occur on a small scale, like turning a blind eye to domestic abuse or not calling emergency services after witnessing a car accident. 

Diffusion of responsibility also happens with broad, international issues, where thousands of people feel diffusion of responsibility and fail to act. Here are a few examples how diffusion of responsibility has played into these well-known issues:

  • The Holocaust: Many people witnessed the persecution and genocide of Jews and other marginalized groups for years during the Holocaust, yet very few people stood up against the violence and discrimination. This includes both the German citizens who saw violence everyday and other countries who knew of the persecution of Jews under the Nazi regime but didn’t do anything about it. The phrase, “I was just following orders,” is diffusion of responsibility because the individual is avoiding any accountability for what occurred just because they didn’t have a leadership role in it.
  • Climate change: For years, scientists have warned the public that if countries, companies, and individuals don’t change their habits to be more conscious of the environment, the effects of climate change will become problematic and affect people and ecosystems across the world. However, relatively little has been done by governments and companies to cut back on emissions and focus on cleaner energy. In addition, people care about the issue on a personal level, but not many care enough to take action to change their own habits or protest against politicians and companies that don’t consider the impact of climate change. This lack of accountability and action from individuals and large organizations is a current and real example of diffusion of responsibility.    

How does diffusion of responsibility show up at work?

You may also see the diffusion of responsibility showing up at your workplace. An example of this would be if everyone saw a workplace problem, such as a broken printer or that a part of a project had broken or gone wrong, and assumed someone else was handling the issue. Since both problems aren’t singularly owned by one person, you and your coworkers might diffuse responsibility and avoid taking accountability for those hiccups. 

If either of these issues sound familiar to your own workplace, everyone on your team may have a high sense of shared responsibility, which means people prefer to share the responsibility with a group instead of having a lot of sole responsibility over work. 

In addition, different cultures and backgrounds may have their own sense for when they should take sole responsibility or the situation calls for shared responsibility. The U.S., for example, has a high sense of individualism, so many Americans have a high sense of sole responsibility. 

To prevent diffusion of responsibility from happening at work, try assigning work to a direct owner. For example, to help with general work duties that are the whole team’s responsibility, you could create a rotating schedule. Everyone has to sign up to take care of the tasks for a certain amount of time. Or, you or your leaders could assign tasks to specific team members to keep tabs on ongoing projects, so any work that suddenly breaks or needs to be looked at already has a designated owner. 

How to break the mold and step up among the crowd

While not always bad, diffusion of responsibility can have serious negative impacts on individuals in distress and, in some instances, the greater public. If you want to break the habit of defaulting to diffusion of responsibility, here are some ways you can practice intervening to help others—even if you’re not in a position of authority. 

  • Practice and act in empathy: Put yourself in other people’s shoes regularly and use that compassion to fuel your strength to take action. If you see someone who needs help or something that goes against your values, have courage to act or speak up instead of going with the flow.
  • Learn a few basic skills to be prepared: The more you know, the more likely you’ll feel confident enough to stand up and take action. Try making yourself well-rounded with a variety of skills and knowledge to prepare yourself for different situations that may occur where you could step up. A few good starting skills would be CPR and first aid, how to change a tire, public speaking, and how to put out a fire.
  • Become more confident with taking action: Sometimes it’s difficult to intervene in a situation because you’re nervous about jumping in and are more comfortable sitting back. However, like most things, the more you practice taking action, the more confident you’ll be in the moment where it matters. Learn to develop a bias for action and try to push yourself out of your comfort zone once in a while to flex your action-taking muscle.

Avoid the “it’s not my job” trap

Diffusion of responsibility is a global issue that affects people everyday—whether it be at the workplace, at home, or as you pass people by on the street. 

While diffusion of responsibility is common, it can be potentially dangerous if everyone continues to avoid taking responsibility and helping others. To overcome this, try the strategies listed above and continually reflect on your actions (or more importantly, your inactions) to see if there are opportunities to step up more. 

Learn how to step in and avoid diffusion of responsibility with fast personal coaching. Get started for free.

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