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Diffusion of Responsibility – How You Fail To Act In A Group

Diffusion of Responsibility – How You Fail To Act In A Group

Many people witnessed a man attack a woman in the middle of the night, but no one called 911. Unbelievable right?

This article will cover how diffusion of responsibility can lead to such behavior.

diffusion of responsibility

The murder of Catherine Genovese

March 13, 1964. Catherine Genovese was returning home after her job at the bar. She parked her car near her apartment and started walking to her house when a man followed her.

Moments later, he stabbed her. A neighbor noticed something wrong and screamed, “Leave her alone.” Whether he witnessed the stranger stabbing Catherine is unclear. Hearing the voice, the man sneaked into the dark.

As Catherine tried dragging herself to her house, the stranger showed up again. This time he stabbed her multiple times to make sure she did not survive the attack. Police arrived at the spot more than an hour later. Catherine succumbed to injuries on the way to the hospital.

The peculiar behavior here was many people observed that something wasn’t right. Yet, none decided to take any action. A newspaper even published that 37 people witnessed the incident but said nothing. While the exact number of witnesses remains uncertain, many people did suspect foul play.

But, no one called 911. People either did not take personal responsibility or assumed that somebody else must have called the cops already.

People were under the effect of diffusion of responsibility. Such a flaw of the brain is one of our cognitive biases, also called the bystander effect or deindividuation.

When cops asked the witnesses why did they not take any action, people said they assumed it was a simple quarrel or a dispute between couples. Some did not give a clear answer.

If you want to know why the man killed the lady, well, the killer had no reason. He stated his motive as “to kill a woman because they are easier and don’t fight back.” Phew! But that lies outside the scope of the topic anyway.

What is diffusion of responsibility?

Diffusion of responsibility is a behavior where an individual fails to take action when others are present around. The individual assumes that another person will take action or has already done so. Research in psychology suggests that the chances of taking action depend on other factors such as the number of people present, anonymity, expertise, sex, familiarity, etc.

The number of people present:

The size of the group makes a massive difference in decision making. If you are the only person witnessing a problem, you feel obligated to take action.

If a person fainted and only you saw it happen, you would call the ambulance. In a mall, when thousands of other people notice the same event, you expect someone else to do so.


Depending on the problem, you might worry if your action can pose some risk for you. For the same reason, people worry about taking action during a crime because they do not want to bring danger upon themselves.

The same factor could have influenced silence during the murder of Catherine.



How qualified you are to provide help also influences your chances of action. A doctor is more likely to take action in a mall when a random person collapses than somebody who does not know how to react.


When a woman faces a problem, people are more likely to offer help. When a man experiences trouble, people tend to assume he brought in on himself or that he can handle it without any help.


If you know the person facing trouble, you spring into action quickly, even when the group size is large.

Experiments on diffusion of responsibility:

Latane and Darley performed experiments to determine the effect of diffusion of responsibility under different scenarios. One statistic that stood out was how the size of the group influenced how an individual reacted.

The experiment involved a call where a test subject spoke to one or more people while being isolated in a room. Except for the subject, the rest of the participants were part of the experiment.

Between the discussion, one participant pretended to have a seizure. Researchers measured whether the test subject took action by seeking external help.

When the discussion was one on one, meaning only the test subject and the person enacting a seizure were present, 85% of the people took action. When the subject had 3 other participants on the call with him, the chances of action dropped to 62%. In the presence of 5 participants, the chances of action went down to a meager 31%.

The more the number of people on the call, the higher was the assumption that someone else would take action though such behavior is visible prosocial.

Ignoring problem

The experimenters performed many variations of the test to understand human behavior during a problem. They presented how diffusion of responsibility or the lack of it, goes through a sequence of 5 steps.

Step 1: Notice

The first step starts with a trigger. For anyone to take action, the person has to notice the problem first.

Step 2: Interpret

The second step involves interpreting the problem. The person makes a judgment if the problem seems grave enough to take any action. Different people might perceive the same situation differently.

Step 3: Take accountability

The third step is the most crucial in the flow. Even if the person decides that the problem is an emergency, he may still fail to take action if he does not feel personally accountable.

The number of people around and the familiarity with the victim act as influential factors on this step.

Step 4: Decide what to do

Even if the person feels accountable for taking action, he may not know what to do. If he notices a kidnapping and feels the need to take action, the confusion of what to do next can leave him stranded.

Expertise plays a role in this step.

Step 5: Act

The final step is taking action itself which seems right for the scenario.

Examples of diffusion of responsibility:

The Nazi Trial:

When the Nazis were prosecuted for their crimes after World War II, the defense used the concept of diffusion of responsibility to prove their innocence. Since many of the Nazis were following orders, they claimed they weren’t responsible for the heinous crimes they committed.

24 Nazis in the trail were high ranked officers but were not among the top war architects like Adolf Hitler. Since the main culprits had committed suicide, the rest could pin the blame on them.

Though all 24 officers did not escape justice, some of them received a simpler punishment.

2. Black Hawk Shootdown

Assuming others did it

On April 14, 1994, two pilots of the US air force misidentified two friendly helicopters as Iraqi aircrafts. The pilots destroyed both the helicopters killing a total of 26 military and civilians on board.

Such a drastic attack required multiple confirmations. Many vital steps were missed before the pilots committed such a grave mistake.

When one pilot misidentified the helicopter, the other failed to notify that he could not confirm what the other pilot saw. The other personnel involved with the engagement assumed some other team members had done the necessary checks.

Many people failed in their responsibilities that day, assuming other team members had done everything necessary.

3. Rowing and other sports events


Rowing takes place both as an individual and a team event. The difference in performance during individual vs. team events has caused teams to lose medals and championship events.

The participants exerted less effort rowing as a team event than in an individual event.

You can notice the same effect in other sports events too. For example, in football, you notice two players missing a sprint because each expected the other to make the run. The same goes for basketball, cricket, and various other team games.

At an international sports level, no one does that on purpose. The brain sets an unconscious expectation that the other person will act.

4. Failing to bring toothpaste on a trip


The last example is from your normal life which does not involve a crime or a championship.

You would have gone on a trip with a group of friends. How many times have you assumed that another person would bring toothpaste? I have gone without one on many outings, counting on my friends to keep my breath fresh.

Sometimes, everyone makes the same assumption, and finally, nobody has toothpaste packed.

The effects of diffusion of responsibility:

Failing to take action by assuming somebody else will has many consequences.

1. Reduced presence

When the group size is larger, your participation decreases. The effect applies in various settings.

The larger the number of participants in a meeting, the lesser you tend to speak and contribute. You may believe you exhibit such behavior in the workplace setting only. But you will find yourself under the same effect even if you go out as a group of friends.

Remind yourself about the day you went out with one friend to a bar vs. the birthday party which had many people. You speak more when you’re in a smaller group than among a larger audience.

2. Higher risks

Higher risks

When you decide as a group, you take higher risks. You know that if things go wrong, you are not the only person held accountable.

The effect occurs not just because of your mindset. In the presence of a larger group, the chances of having a risk-loving person increase too. The audacity of one and the lack of opposition from others, again due to the same effect, can lead to higher risks as a group.

If you want some real-life proof, let me give you a challenge. Would you be willing to spend a night in a haunted house alone? Unless you’re a daredevil, you’d say no.

What if you had 10 more people accompanying you? You may still decline the offer, but you have higher chances of agreeing to take that risk as a group than going solo.

3. Lack of interest

Depending on the task at hand, you may lose interest as the group size increases. Let us assume that the revenue of one part of your organization is falling in recent months. You are a member of an 8 person committee to find steps to improve the situation.

If you do not have any idea how to solve the problem, the chances of you taking the backseat to let others drive a solution are high. Had there been only 2 people, you would wrack your brain and put in more effort to pull the revenue back on track.

4. Lower motivation levels

Lower motivation

When you chase a goal as a group, your motivation levels can take a tailspin. As human beings, we love recognition as an individual more than as a group.

If a sales team is chasing a target as a group, the individual team members feel less of an urge to achieve the goal. A feeling creeps in which tells you, “The others will achieve the target, and I can relax.”

5. Following rules

The tendency to follow or break the rules grows stronger as the group size increases. Have you observed people jaywalking on the road if they find other people around doing it? Your inner voice tells you, “Others are breaking the rules, so why shouldn’t I?”

The same effect occurs with good behavior too. If you hang around with people who work out often, you cultivate a habit of working out yourself.

How do you overcome diffusion of responsibility?

Here are 5 tips to reduce the effect from influencing your behavior.

1. Make your path and goals clear to yourself

When you bring in clarity to your goals and direction, you make constant progress towards them. The more vague your goals are, the more you tend to go astray.

Confusion is the root cause of taking things easy. If you do not know what you want to achieve, you have a higher chance of going with the flow.

2. Involve minimum people

Less is more

Whatever the task at hand is, when you involve fewer people, each person contributes more.

The behavior was first observed in horses when a researcher measured the force exerted by a single horse pulling a chariot. When they added another horse to pull the same chariot, the effort put in by each horse went down a little.

Human beings exhibited the same behavior too. If a group of people attempts to clean the house, each puts in only the most minimal effort required to get the task completed or stay hidden under the radar.

Utilizing fewer people is not always the best idea because it can burden a few participants more than required. Apply the logic only when it helps improve quality and the completion time for a task.

3. Consider interests

Interest levels

Diffusion of responsibility shows up in full gear if one or more participant does not enjoy the task at hand. A bunch of guys will complete a video game challenge faster than women as a group. A group of women will accomplish a fashion-related task quicker than men will.

Though the generalization can fail in some cases, considering the interests of people can reduce the effect of the phenomenon.

4. Track progress

Introducing a system to measure individual progress can help motivate people to put their best step forward. Let us take an example where salespeople have to achieve a group target.

A better way to accomplish the same goal is to set individual goals for each team member and measure the progress towards the unified goal.

Again, you cannot apply the strategy in all scenarios where measuring action is not feasible.

5. Build a reward system

Reward system

When a larger group size is involved, setting a reward for individuals and the team for achieving milestones can help people stay on track. The leaders must take the onus of building a reward system for the people involved.

If your team does not have a reward system in place, feel free to set your own rewards to keep your spirits high.


Your behavior in a team and as an individual will have a significant difference. That said, you cannot embark on a journey alone to achieve massive goals. To go long and far, you will need to work effectively with a team.

When you work in a team, diffusion of responsibility will creep in sooner or later. Your performance as an individual and as a group has challenges of its own.

Make both your team and yourself successful. Only you can make that happen.

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