Diffusion of Responsibility – A to Z Challenge, Literary Terms

DDay 4 of the A to Z Challenge and we have had some really great words. Especially yesterday with a post so jammed pack with information. I promise today won’t be quite so big, but still have good information for the writers out there.

Today we look at Diffusion of Responsibility. This is a rather sad phenomenon that many might be aware of, but not to the extent featured today. The only thing I say is in response to this article, is if you see someone in danger, do something, even if it is calling the police.

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Diffusion of Responsibility (DoR, as I’m lazy) is sociopsychological phenomenon whereby a person is less likely to take an action when other individuals are present. Sounds very fucked up, however, it is something that happens quite a bit.

The reason why people on average refuse to take any action to help someone when so many others are around is the general notion that it is someone else’s responsibility. This occurs when a group is above a certain critical size and responsibility is not explicitly assigned. On the flip side, when people are alone, they are more likely to take action.

There are two general conditions in which DoR occurs, prosocial and antisocial.

Prosocial is a voluntary behavior intended to benefit another. This is trumped by the presence of other people. It has been demonstrated that the chances of a person offering assistance decreases as the number of observers increases, which is a demonstration of the Bystander Effect.

Another key component is anonymity. People are less likely to get involved if they don’t know the person, likely believing that someone who knows the victim will get involved.

Antisocial are actions that harm or lack consideration for the well-being of others. Within groups of people of antisocial behavior; people are less likely to help a victim and are very likely to join in themselves. This in turn causes members of a group (such as a club or gang) to lose their self-awareness and feel anonymous, thus having less responsibility to the actions of the group. This is very similar to Mob Mentality.

It has been found that a bystander goes through a cognitive and behavioral process.

1. Notice that something is going on.

A study done by Latane and Darley where college students were put in a room to answer a questionnaire. Then the room started to fill with smoke to see how long it would take the students to notice.

When alone, students noticed it within 5 seconds. However, multiple students in the same room took longer, up to 20 seconds.

The researchers explained this as a part of social norms, a function of culture. In most western cultures, politeness dictates that it is inappropriate to idly look around. Interesting enough, it is also considered rude to stair at people. Because of this, people tend to keep their attention to themselves, especially in large groups.

Though individuals that are alone tend to be more aware of their surroundings.

2. Interpret the situation as being an emergency

Once a situation has been noticed, an individual must perceive it as an emergency situation in order to intervene. More than just judge for themselves, they will look towards others to determine if they think it is an emergency situation. If others don’t seem to react that it is, then an individual is less likely to intervene.

In the smoke experiment, while someone within a smaller group noticed the smoke, most in the experiment waited to report it. Larger groups, still indicated that at least on person noticed it, but didn’t report it.

3. Degree of Responsibility felt
There are 3 things to help determine this:

  1. Whether or not they feel the person is deserving help.
  2. The competence of the bystander
  3. The relationship between the bystander and the victim

4. Forms of Assistance

Two ways someone might help:

  1. Direct intervention
  2. Detour intervention: report to an authority

5. Implement the action choice

If a bystander makes it past step four, it is time to do something.

Helping Writers

This might sound like fantasy, or that it is something that happens in rare occurrences. We do see it in movies a lot where the main characters fight it out and no one does anything. None more noticeable than the movie The Gauntlet where police watch as a politician shoots at a Detective and do nothing.



I will let you know however, it is very common. It’s very heartbreaking. There are a lot of reports all over the internet that demonstrate this. I thought about posting those examples, but I think that is best left to your own research.

I wish this wasn’t true, however, we can’t change reality simply because we disagree with it. We can raise awareness and encourage people to change, which we should always do.

When it comes to writing, people as individuals can be quite brave, but in a group, can be quite cowardice. You hear the tag strength in numbers, but that is only true if there is a clear leader who is giving the group orders. When there is no leaders, the crowd is silent. It may not be intentional, but rather a cultural influence.

When you write your stories, you can choose to ignore this fact and state your world is different, but if your goal is for your story to be a reflection of life, this is important to know.  Sometimes, people will break from the mold and stand above others, and they may be the heroes of your story.

A good example of this is Avengers. In this scene, everyone upon seeing Loki bow before him. We might think to ourselves that we ourselves wouldn’t do this, but when you are in a crowd, you most likely will. One person did stand up to Loki, and wasn’t a main character. This one character is a rare moment of reality, where as the people following what the crowd does is a truth in reality.

Often enough, people don’t want to get involved, and pass the responsibility onto someone else, or expect someone else to step up. It’s likely not intentional, but still happens.

As K said in Men in Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals…” When in a crowd, the crowd acts like a herd. Where the crowd moves, the people will follow. Separate a person from the herd, and they are more likely to accept responsibility for a situation.

Remember this when a crowd gathers round when something is happening or your character is in danger. More than likely, the crowd will do nothing. It takes true character for anyone within a crowd to do anything.

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