Diffusion of Responsibility


Photo Courtesy of Watcharakun on freedigitalphotos.net

Photo Courtesy of Watcharakun on freedigitalphotos.net

Since writing my Modern-Day Good Samaritan posts, I’ve been thinking a lot about a phenomenon I learned in psych class called “Diffusion of Responsibility”. It’s a phenomenon where a person is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when others are present.

How do you overcome that?

In an emergency situation—say, when someone passes out in public or a woman screams and no one does anything to help—it’s referred to as the “Bystander effect”. It seems, the larger the crowd, the less sense of personal responsibility people feel and the less likely they are to help. The case most infamous is the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese that was witnessed by thirty-some people.

What causes this lockup? It can’t be that all these people are just cold and callous…or brain dead. What could be going through a person’s mind to rationalize doing nothing?

Shock: First off, witnessing someone drop to the sidewalk or suffer a brutal mugging isn’t an everyday occurrence for most of us. (At least I hope not). So, there’s the shock factor of something way out of the ordinary.

Look for guidance: We look around. What does everyone else think of this? If everyone’s acting normal or standing there, not taking any action, then it must be okay, right? You might not understand what’s going on, but someone does. Someone else must be in-the-know. Right?

Lack of Qualifications: Someone else, more experienced in how to handle emergency situations probably did what needed to be done. Or they will. Surely there’s a doctor, nurse, EMT, policeman or military Special Forces in the crowd somewhere.

Fear: We’ve all heard “no good deed goes unpunished.” We could get embroiled in something and get hurt. We’ve watched plenty of TV drama to prove it. Plus, there are a plethora of lawyers making it their lives’ work to try to punch holes in the shield of Good Samaritan laws and sue us for trying to help anyone.

Stranger: Someone who knows the victim will help.

Anonymity is easier. To watch from the crowd or walk away as if nothing’s amiss.

English: CPR training

English: CPR training (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Possible Ways to Overcome This Bystander Tendency?

Purpose: For me, I would think it would start with your worldview. Do you think we’re on this planet to help each other? Or to live for ourselves and simply make sure we keep on breathing? If we determine we’re the kind of people who want to help…well then, maybe we can decide ahead of time that we’d give it our best shot, should such a situation arise.

Recognition: I can’t guarantee how I would react in such an emergency situation. All I know is how I’d WANT to respond. As my mom always says, identifying the problem is a big step. Recognize the situation. Like, “Hey, could this be that bystander effect happening right now? Why nobody’s doing anything? Including me?” Recognize the hurdle so you can jump over it. Moving forward may not come naturally, but if we can consciously recognize a situation for what is, maybe then it will help push us to act.

And helping may not require a lot. It may simply mean making a phone call or taking a photo or leveraging the crowd.

Pinpoint: In this case, it’s not rude to point at someone. If you want to offer assistance and need help, specifically designate someone. Don’t just say, “Someone help me. Someone call 911.” Make eye contact. Point. “You in the ball cap, call 911.”

My husband said that type of pinpointing was part of his lifeguard training in high school. Sad that it took me so long to learn it, too.

What examples do you have of diffusion of responsibility happening? Or its opposite? Maybe you’ve witnessed someone courageously take charge like the folks I wrote about in Uganda? Ever used the Heimlich? Given CPR?



17 comments on “Diffusion of Responsibility

    • Once, a friend and I were in a car accident…I was able to think very clearly until after were safe. Then, I couldn’t stop shaking either. But that was on a personal sort of crisis, not for someone else.

      I’m glad you can do it. I wouldn’t have doubted it.

  1. It’s really good for one’s selff esteem to find you don’t freeze in an emergency!’I could hear this awful roaring when I was in Hongkong,I came on a huge circle of people all yelling and doing bullfighting type noises! As I walked past there was a gap in the crowd, and I saw a crazed half witted teenager beating a six year-old with a piece of pipe. The child was hemmed n by all the cheering onlookers. I dropped my four year old’s hand, darted into the circle not knowing what I was going to do, and something made me grab the pipe. It arrested the whole thing, the child escaped, the crowd groaned and dispersed, and I went back to find my lost son!

  2. Unfortunately, I may react in accordance to your “Look for Guidance” point…look at the crowd and judge by their reactions if this is a legit emergency. But if everyone did that, then where would the help come from? Indeed, I need to change this perspective and make the call myself!

    • I worry about that one, too, Marie….that I’d wait, looking for guidance. That’s why I think sometimes it’s good to consider such scenarios ahead of time. Plus, if it turns out not to be an emergency, then fine….you’ve done your due diligence and can continue on your way.

  3. Pingback: The Bystander Effect: It’s not my problem! | Impower You


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s