Research Position Paper – Adam Tutolo

Responsibility Diffused, Would you help?

Diffusion of responsibility is a physiological phenomenon whereby a person fails to take action when someone is need of help or in danger. People do not act because their sense of responsibility is negatively affected. The responsibility is often diffused over the group that is present in the situation. Many factors play into what the outcome will be. Characteristics such as age, gender, and race will affect the decisions of the onlookers. In almost all cases people tend to think of themselves before others although, the tendency to choose themselves increases when there are more people present in a situation. Diffusion of responsibility goes against how a person would normally react to someone in need. Responsibility is diffused others and the bigger the group the less responsible people feel.

This whole research subject started when a young girl named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her home. Neighbors heard her screams for help, but no one came to her aid or called the police. None of the neighbors wanted to take responsibility for helping this girl and all thought someone else would help. This event led to the nationwide research on the subject of diffusion of responsibility.

The television show, “What would you do”, provides us with plenty of great live evidence at diffusion of responsibility occurring. This is the best source out there on this subject because viewers are seeing the phenomenon actually happen unbeknownst to the bystanders. The show specially picks factors to put into the act to entice the bystanders. For instance when a female is cheating behind a man’s back hardly anyone speaks up. However when the man cheats behind the woman’s back everyone speaks up. This proves how gender plays a huge role in the process of diffusion responsibility.

There have been many studies done over the years on diffusion of responsibility.  One of my favorites was described in an article by Russ Dewey.  Students met at Columbia University to fill out a questionnaire, they were divided into groups. One set was a small group where students were taking a test in a cubicle by themselves. Another set was a larger group of students that were taking the test in pairs. Then suddenly the students heard a loud crash then a woman screaming, “Oh My God, my foot! I can’t move it! Oh….my ankle…I can’t get this thing off me!” This was obviously staged, but the students didn’t know. Seventy percent of the students who were grouped alone reacted to the situation, however only forty percent of the students who were grouped in pairs reacted to the situation. The students all knew they were in a group. In the larger group people felt less responsible and continued testing thinking someone else would help them. In the smaller group a good percentage of people helped because the students felt more responsible for the girl. In this case there was less responsibility to be diffused.

Many people believe that the bystanders’ actions are peculiar. People forget that the bystander believes he is not being judged or watched. The act of the bystander ignoring the victim is often caught on camera and this puzzles most people. A person would think that if someone was in need of assistance around a large group at least one person would step up and take action. However it is almost always not the case. Usually if there is a smaller group present it is more likely for someone to step up and help a victim. With a larger group most people diffuse the responsibly to someone else in the group and no one ends up helping.

Overall the theory of diffusion of responsibility is a perplexing phenomenon. The theory doesn’t follow the social norm and surprises people often. In all scenarios responsibility is being diffused into the group and the victim is left in danger with no aid.

In a case of diffusion of responsibility a victim is being left helpless while responsibility is diffused among a crowd. For there to be a victim there has to an occurrence of a cause-and-effect situation.  When this phenomenon happens it’s because a person or more commonly a group of people fail to act in a situation. The failure of action is spread throughout the group causing a mass non reaction to a potential dangerous situation for a victim. The process of diffusion of responsibility happens step by step and with the completion of each step the less likely someone is to react.

The steps to helping someone in a situation go as followed:

1).notice an emergency 2) interpret event as an emergency 3) take responsibility 4) decide to help, 5) provide help. This method would be the expecting steps you would take in an emergency. However, when diffusion of responsibility occurs the first two steps are indeed noticed, but on the third step your mind will see that your help is need but will diffuse the responsibility on to someone else. So when someone needs help the five step process to helping someone becomes blurry at the third step and in many cases help is not granted. There are factors that contribute to you not lending assistance. Some of these factors include your mood, age, morals, pressure and confidence. All of these factors weigh against your conscience and cause you not to help, which in effect the victim is left unaided.

Another reason why people fail to help in these situations is because people often look to others for guidance in ambiguous situations. A person will think a cop will help or someone stronger. The fact is everyone is thinking that and this causing the delay and the responsibility to be diffused. Most people want to stay in the background in life and not cause to much attention to themselves. When someone is in trouble this trait comes out in people and they stay in the shadows. We all have experienced that awkward moment where we are asked to admit something, but we look to others around us before raising our hand or admitting something. The same goes when diffusion of responsibility occurs. When an individual is alone, they are responsible for their actions and act accordingly. However, in a group individuals will look to others for guidance. This happens especially in an intense situation or an emergency. This reaction will cause delay, and in many cases this is why bystanders are so late in helping a victim in need. In some cases this can even cause bystanders to assume that nothing needs to be done at all.

When I was in high school I experienced a group diffusion of responsibility first hand. I was standing in the hallway before class and two kids that were mentally disabled were playing tag. They were usually followed by class aids, but at the time there were not any around. The bigger of the two kids started to get rough and pushed the smaller kid down to the ground really hard. There were probably about thirty kids around when this event occurred. The boy started to cry and everyone watched him do so, no one stepped forward right away. Then one of my friends and I stepped forward and lifted him up, then I went and got the teacher in the next room. Looking back on that experience I was stunned that no one stepped up and helped this poor kid right away. I even took a minute to help him because in my mind I was waited for someone else to step up and help him. The reason for the delay had a lot to do with how big the group was. Since the group was so large everyone looked around for someone else to help. If it had been a much smaller group people would have reacted quicker because they would feel more responsible. After this all happened everyone said that they were about to help or that they just froze for a minute and didn’t know why.  This is because in their mind they didn’t feel responsible. They were not ready for this event to happen, so they did not act because there mind was caught off guard and responsibility began to diffuse to others.

When I started researching this subject I thought of a project my friend Joe did in high school.  He was studying diffusion of responsibility; he went to the mall and secretly filmed people’s reactions as he pretended to fall out of a wheelchair or fall on crutches. I interviewed him about the video and how people reacted when he fell. I asked him what the normal reaction was when he fell out of the wheelchair. He replied, “When there were a lot of people around almost everyone would ignore me and not help me, and then usually someone would finally get up and help me.” When there was only one or two people around they helped me most of the time.”  In the end of the video he and his friend pretend to get in a fight. Joe’s friend then pushed him out of the wheelchair and onto the ground. Many people saw this happen, but no one helped for a long period of time, until a really big guy came by and made sure he was alright. It is obvious that no one wanted to take responsibility for this apparent act of bullying. Everyone around diffused there responsibility, they figure that really big guy would help and eventually he did. This proves that the more people around the longer the delay will be. Also the more people there are means less responsibility will be taken as a group.

So overall, delay causes diffusion of responsibility situations to occur. In most cases the delay is caused by assuming. For instance, people can assume a call has already been made to the police in an emergency. Or people will just flat out assume that someone else will help. Assuming anything is healthy it is better to be sure.  In a large group people will look to others to assist before they do because of lack of confidence in many cases. The larger the group the more time will be taken up before help is granted. All these factors cause the phenomenon of Diffusion of Responsibility and the effect is a victim will not receive help when it is needed.

Some people believe that the phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility stems from purely what you see. For example, a bystander will not help based on the victim’s race, gender, or age. Although this theory may be true the sub-conscience mind plays a much bigger role in the event of diffusion of responsibility. In the article, Diffusion of Responsibility: Are sexes more likely to help the same sex or the opposite sex? The Author’s position early on states that men will help in a situation before women do and will think about it less. He also said that female victims will be helped sooner. By the end this is how the results came back: “The hypothesis that participants will help the female confederate more than male confederate was not supported by this collection of data,” said Bell. This author disproves his own theory and only further strengthens the fact the mind plays the sub-conscience mind will play the biggest part when deciding to help or not.

Countless studies have been done on diffusion of responsibility all results usually end up in the same boat. A bystander will diffuse responsibility to another before helping in a situation. There are more psychological aspects occurring then physical aspects. The physical aspects would be the a person’s understanding of a victim’s race, age, or gender, before deciding on what they are going to do. Some psychological aspects would be the feeling that you are not responsible for this event and therefore would diffuse the responsibility to others. That would be happening in your mind almost subconsciously. Another factor would be the amount of people around you. When this factor comes into play the bystander is not counting the people then just saying, “Oh one of them will handle this.”  No a person subconsciously is aware of the amount of people and their responsibility level is lowered by the more people that are present.

The mind controls our body and sometimes the mind will go against your heart and you are not always responsible for this it is just human instinct at work. In the situations where a victim is in need most people will look back on it and say if i had another chance i would have done something, but there mind was telling them not too. Now there are people out there that will only look on the surface of things. These people will not help because they do not want to look foolish. This is nowhere near the broad consensus and contributing those types of reactions is not why this phenomenon occurs.

The reason why so many studies are done is study how the mind reacts to certain situations. If a person knew that they were being watched at all times then there reactions would be abnormal. Let’s say a woman was stealing a man’s backpack, would anyone help in this situation? Most likely no they would not help. You could poll people this question and the majority would say they wouldn’t help. If you ask a group of men the reverse, say a man was stealing a woman’s purse. Almost every man would say they would help. In reality a small number of these men would help. It has been proven in numerous studies. Your mind is generally going to react in your best interest and will delay and let someone else take the responsibility.

Overall the mind plays a much bigger part when it comes to the phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility then the physical characteristics do. The mind really does rule all. When you are in a compromising position your mind can take over.

Diffusion of responsibility goes against how a person would normally react to someone in need. Responsibility is diffused others and the bigger the group the less responsible people feel. Your mind is known to play tricks on you and take over your senses. When diffusion of responsibility occurs your mind takes over and it goes over your surrounding. In many cases your responsibility is diffused because of the various factors that occur in your mind that tell a person not to react to a potentially dangerous situation. Diffusion of responsibility is a very interesting concept and now I know a great deal about it.

Works Cited

Dewey.” Diffusion of Responsibility | in Chapter 15: Social | from Psychology: An Introduction by Russ Dewey. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

“Bystander Effect and Diffusion of Responsibility | Heroic Imagination Project.” Heroic Imagination Project RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

“What Is Diffusion Of Responsibility?” Psychology. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2013.

“What Is Diffusion Of Responsibility?” Psychology. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2013.

“Definition of Diffusion Of Responsibility.” Tweens. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2013.

“Bystander Effect and Diffusion of Responsibility.” Heroic Imagination Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.

“Bystander Effect – What is the Bystander Effect.” Psychology. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.


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