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In this lesson, we will define the theory of diffusion of responsibility and look into its features. We will also consider real life examples that display the phenomenon.

What Is Diffusion of Responsibility?

What would you do if you were walking along the street of a major city, when all of a sudden a woman falls to the ground about 20 feet away from you? Would you run to help her? Or would you look around, waiting for someone else to do something? Chances are, thoughts would run through your mind about what could be happening, if you should do anything, or what those around you will do.It has been observed by psychologists that we tend to act differently in a large group than we would alone.

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Perhaps if no one was with you on the street and the same woman collapsed by herself, you would feel more responsible for calling 911. However, when many other people are present, you feel less personally obligated to help.While some may deny this tendency, when actually put in a similar public situation, it is the reaction of the majority of people. The observation of the phenomena that one feels less responsible to act in a large group is labeled diffusion of responsibility.

Characteristics of Diffusion of Responsibility

The basic features that comprise diffusion of responsibility are:1. Lacking a sense of personal responsibilityAs mentioned earlier, it feels different when we are the only person present than when others are present. Most of us assume that in a public setting it is not clearly our responsibility to act.

‘There are other people here, they can do something about it,’ might be the thought.2. Minimizing the feeling of guiltWhile some of us may feel some guilt for not acting to help another, it is easier to share blame or give it over entirely to those around. If we feel others are responsible, then the outcome is not only up to us, but also up to them.

3. Looking to others for guidanceWe may know something needs to be done but doubt our course of action. Like with the initial example of the woman collapsing, you may think to yourself, ‘What just happened? Is she okay?’ We wonder if someone else in the crowd knows better than we do about what’s going on, or what to do about it. In groups we often look for the guidance of others.4.

Increasing with group sizePsychologists have noticed that as the group gets bigger, we tend to be less and less likely to help another. The more people who have the potential to step in, the more we feel we do not have to. Even the addition of each new person lowers the tendency to act.

Examples

The theory of diffusion of responsibility comes from the psychological concept the bystander effect. In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in her home. Despite hearing her screams and cries for help, none of Kitty’s neighbors took the initiative to call the police. When one finally made the call, it was too late.

It was shocking to the nation that no one acted soon enough. Psychologists who observed and explained this situation called it the bystander effect, where those who are present have a diffusion of responsibility.In 2009, NBC created a scenario to test the bystander effect. The station created a mock child abduction in a suburban area of New York. They had a child act as if she was being abducted by a stranger.

The man was tugging at her and she was pulling away, while yelling repeatedly, ‘Someone help me, you’re not my dad! Someone help me!’ Yet despite her obvious cries, many people only stared at her and then passed her by. In fact, it was not until a few hours later that a group of three young men finally ran over to her and stood up to the ‘abductor.’ Clearly, the majority of people fall prey to this human tendency, while only a minority will act differently.Sadly, diffusion of responsibility has led to some other very tragic outcomes. In 2005, a college freshman was left to die during a fraternity rush event, simply because no one acted when he seemed out of sorts.

He had just been forced to drink a 5-gallon jug of water, and started acting as though he was drunk (this was due to his kidneys being worn down). He was forced to do push-ups with his other classmates, but then laid still on the ground, not moving or responding. One of the boys said to call 911, but when he heard him snoring he assumed he was asleep and changed his mind.

Unfortunately, the snoring was actually his body shutting down. The group of boys, who later served some time in jail, were plagued with guilt for not having acted. They each said they had waited for another to tell them what to do, and figured since others were not concerned, they didn’t need to be either.

Lesson Summary

Diffusion of responsibility occurs when we are in a large group and therefore don’t feel personally responsible for helping a person in need. When there is a group, we also feel minimized guilt for not helping others.

Research shows that we often look to others to intervene and we look for them to guide our actions. The term is a feature of the psychological concept the bystander effect.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Describe the diffusion of responsibility phenomenon
  • List and explain the characteristics of diffusion of responsibility
  • Explain how diffusion of responsibility can have fatal outcomes using examples

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