Diffusion of Responsibility

I was a psych major in college. Like many of you, I remember almost nothing from all of my classes. There were a few theories, though, that stuck with me. One of them was the theory of Diffusion of Responsibility.

This theory explains, in part, why no Japanese students raise their hands in class, why Aine has a hard time getting people to blog each week, and why, in 1964, a woman died in New York.




"Someone else can do it!"

As the size of a group increases, the more unlikely it is that a request made of that group will be fulfilled. That is, if you ask one person to fill out a survey, that person will more likely fill it out than if you send a mass email to forty people to fill out the survey. If you break down on the side of the road, you are more likely to be helped by the single passing car on a lonely country road than you are by the hundred cars on a busy highway. If you live with six people, the trash is less likely to be taken out than if you live with only one.

Example 1
Japanese students in class, when requested to answer a question, share among 35 people the responsibility to answer a single question. Each of them has 1/35 of the responsibility, and 1/35 of the silent discomfort brought about a question posed but not answered. Because each of them feels only 1/35 of the necessity to answer, the question goes unanswered.

Example 2
You are in a serious accident on a crowded highway. Your car flips over and traps you inside. Hundreds of people are aware that there has been a serious accident, but each of them figures that someone else can help you (or at least call 911). If you are in the same accident on a road with only one car behind you, the driver of that car is aware that he is the only person available to help. He recognizes that the responsibility to act is his and his alone, and so gets you the help you need.

Example 3
The Kitty Genovese Murder

How many people saw this happen? Thirty-eight. Thirty-eight people watched this woman be murdered, and none of them did a thing. Diffusion of Responsibility. "Somebody else can do it."





What do you do about it?

If you want something done, don't ask everybody at once! Request work from individuals or very small groups. Focus responsibility to get the results you want.

If you send out a mass email and want responses, take two seconds to personalize it for each of your respondents and send it individually. Don't let anyone know that they are actually part of a larger group.

If you are being attacked and need help from a stranger, don't just call for help from a group. Single a person out -- it can be as simple as saying, "Hey, you in the red shirt! Help me!"

The last one you already know. To get an answer to a question, call on students individually. When you narrow the responsibility to answer from 35 people to 1 person, you multiply the student's burden by 35 times. He KNOWS he has to answer.

Now, if we could actually get them to answer by doing anything other than shaking their heads and looking uncomfortably at the floor, then we'd be getting somewhere.