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The diffusion of responsibility

The diffusion of responsibility

With the increase in the number of people in a situation when somebody needs help, the chances of taking any action are reduced.


In social psychology, many experiments have been conducted in order to explore individual’s behavior in a group of others. It is believed that some strong group processes occur when a person is surrounded by many people. One of the phenomena that were observed is the diffusion of responsibility. A great number of social experiments have tested this hypothesis that individuals currently lose their sense of responsibility towards a stranger if they are a part of a larger group.


The diffusion of responsibility can be defined as the phenomenon when an individual does not take any action due to a presence of other people. For example, people will less likely help someone who fell down near them to get up if many other people are passing by as well. So, why might this behavior be worrisome? Let’s assume everyone who is walking next to someone who needs help will have the feeling as it is not their responsibility to act because there are also other people around. What will consequently happen? Probably no one will help that needy person with a thought that someone else will. That is one of the beliefs that people have when they find themselves in a mentioned situation. The other one is, that person won’t be guilty of not acting because others didn’t do anything as well.


Can this phenomenon be generalized to every one of us, or are there some individuals who are more or less prone to the beliefs previously described? Firstly, this group effect on an individual’s behavior was shown to be cross-cultural. Moreover, in one study, the diffusion of responsibility (often called “the bystander effect”) was found among 5-year old children. Nevertheless, some factors do contribute to the level of phenomenon expression. For instance, familiarity with the needy person will lead to a reduction of diffusion of responsibility effect. On the other hand, when the clarity of the situation is decreased, people will more likely avoid exposing themselves and helping out. If one enters the scene with negative judgmental tendencies towards a person in need (e.g. about race, socioeconomic status), he or she is more likely to neglect that person. Finally, if one notices some similarities to the person in need, the action of helping will more likely occur.


Recent findings


In modern society, the diffusion of responsibility phenomenon can be recognized in social media situations, which was found in a research conducted on the Ohio State University. Since cyberbullying is a common behavior among today’s children and adolescents, other peers act as “bystanders” when they notice that someone is being bullied and don’t react. So this phenomenon appears to occur in cyber context as well nowadays. One difference is that people often don’t get caught if they neglect a person in need on social media, which makes it easier to diffuse their responsibility.