In 1968 the psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané made an experiment that revealed a very curious phenomenon: the diffusion of responsibility. They recruited a group of college students and placed them in separate cubicles, but they could communicate remotely.
They simply had to take turns talking about their academic concerns. At one point, one of the young men suffered a seemingly serious problem. At that point, the participants had to decide whether to sit quietly or run to help the person.
The study revealed that only 31% of people got up to help the young man in distress. Instead, 85% of people rushed to help him when they knew that they were the only left there and that there was no one else. The researchers appreciated a rule: the more the number of potential helpers increases in any given situation, the more likely it is that help will not be offered, a trend linked to the Bystander effect.
What is diffusion of responsibility?
The diffusion of responsibility is a psychological phenomenon that usually occurs in groups. The presence of other people, or sometimes the simple fact of knowing that they exist or have some implication, makes an individual feel less responsible for the situation and, therefore, assume a passive attitude, leaving the others to take control.
The diffusion of responsibility does not only occur among groups of strangers, but is also seen in work environments, when each employee expects the other to take care of the most cumbersome tasks. In fact, a study carried out at Clemson University revealed that when a group of people has to work to achieve a common goal, each individual on average works less than when he or she works alone.
The diffusion of responsibility also occurs in the family environment, when each person expects the other to take responsibility for solving problems. And it occurs in couples, when both members blame each other and try to flee from their responsibilities in the relationship by depositing them on the other.
The easiest way is not always the best
From an evolutionary point of view, the diffusion of responsibility makes sense as it helps us reduce the risks to which we expose ourselves. In fact, we all tend to automatically choose the path of least resistance to save psychological resources. However, if everyone has a tendency to discharge the responsibility on others, who will help? Who will make important decisions? Who will push the necessary change?
When responsibility is blurred among many people, each of them will be less likely to act. They are more likely to be carried away by circumstances or to follow the crowd, assuming a passive and resigned attitude. In fact, the phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility is also at the base of the great atrocities that have been committed in the history of mankind, simply because the vast majority of people expected the others to act.
The diffusion of responsibility can also lead to immobility. If we wait for others to act, the problems are likely not to be solved and, in the worst case, they will continue to grow. In this way we condemn ourselves to a loop of dissatisfaction in which we limit ourselves to lamenting that things are going wrong, hoping that the others will fix them in our place.
Take responsibility and change things
The presence of other people reduces our perception of self-efficacy, generating greater ambiguity in responsibility and a decrease in the feeling of control. In other words, when there are more people, we believe that we should assume less responsibility and give more control to the others.
We tend to be happier by letting the others handle difficult situations for us. It is easier to sit back and hope that the others will take the risks and responsibilities.
However, for communities of any size to evolve, there must be people who oppose this trend. Families, communities or societies need proactive people who are willing to make decisions, step forward and take responsibility.
We can live avoiding problems, placing weight and responsibility on the shoulders of the others, ignoring the principle of interdependence without being aware that “we save ourselves together or we sink apart”, as Juan Rulfo wrote.
Or we can live assuming responsibilities. Making decisions. Going against the mainstream when we think they are wrong. Taking the first step. Changing what must be changed. And for that we just have to ask ourselves: “If not me, who?”
Karau, S. et. Al. (1993) Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 65(4): 681-706.
Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968) Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 8(4, Pt.1): 377–383.