Diffusion of responsibility is a concept that has been employed in several fruitful ways in psychology. First, consider a collection of persons, strangers, that faces an unexpected situation, such as that of a person who is suddenly in distress. Intuitively it is clear that each member of the collection of persons feels less responsibility to intervene in the situation than does a solitary individual who, knowing he or she is the sole witness, faces the same crisis alone. The solitary individual knows that if help is to come, it must come from him or her, while a witness who is a member of a crowd reasons that there are many other persons who could provide help.
Any reluctance a person has to intervene in this situation can be rationalized by this possibility. Reasons to be reluctant to intervene are present in many situations, such as fears of embarrassment for crying wolf when the situation is in fact no emergency, to fears of performing the necessary actions in an incompetent way, to fears for one’s own personal safety. Social psychological research demonstrates that, in staged situations in which a victim is calling for help, this effect occurs; there is a markedly lower probability of each individual intervening as the apparent size of the group available to intervene increases.
In these experimental tests of the concept, it is usual to make the witnessing individual aware that other witnesses are also aware of the potential emergency but to make it impossible for the witness to know how the other individuals are reacting to the event. The reasoning here is that if they are aware of how the others react, this provides information about the others’ definition of the event, which could also influence their reactions to it in ways not connected with the diffusion concept. The attempt here is to model situations such as the famous Kitty Genovese killing, in which a person was killed in the courtyard of her apartment building. Neighbors at their windows were aware that other neighbors’ were also witnessing the event but could not be aware of the exact reactions of the other neighbors to the event.
Diffusion of responsibility can arise in group decision-making situations as well. Assume that a decision needs to be made, and it is one of uncertainty or risk. That is, the decision outcome may be good, but it also may be bad. If the decision is made by one person, that person will worry about whether the decision he or she makes will be a bad one, because he or she will feel responsible for the poor decision. Also, others will hold that person responsible and criticize and perhaps punish that person. On the other hand, suppose that it is a group that is making a decision about what action will be taken. Again, intuitively, each individual participating in a group decision-making process will feel that he or she would not be so responsible for the joint decision outcome if the decision comes out poorly. After all, the decision would not have been made if others didn’t agree with it. “So I was not really so dumb because everybody thought it was the right decision.”
The diffusion idea is easily expanded to illuminate the often-observed phenomenon of social loafing. The task of a tug of war team is to win the tug of war, and the task of a group making a report in class is to turn out a really good report. But it won’t surprise you to learn that people often expend less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work alone. The reason is that they feel a diminished motivation to do their best when their own contributions to the product will be lost in the overall group product. This is why those who are clever at task design will often arrange things so that each person’s true contributions to the task can be separately assessed and the group members know this is so. But in some ways, this is really nothing more than turning a group task back into a set of individual tasks. Happily, it is often not necessary to go this far to get high productivity out of the group. For instance, if the members are really committed to reaching the group goal, then social loafing is not likely to occur. It is also often possible to get efficiency gains by working in groups, by having different individuals take on the tasks that they do best.
- Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.
- Karau, S. J., & Williams, K. D. (1993). Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 681-706.
- Latane, B. (1979). Many hands make light the work: The causes and consequences of social loafing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 822-832.
- Mynatt, C., & Sherman, S. J. (1975). Responsibility attribution in groups and individuals: A direct test of the diffusion of responsibility hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 1111-1118.