Diffusion of social responsibility

Is this the powerful force pulling us apart?

With more and more people entering our networks, both online and offline this powerful social-psychological effect, known as the ‘diffusion of responsibility’ is taking a stronger hold on us. Also known as the ‘bystander effect'‘ people are less inclined to take action and more apathetic when someone is in need when in large groups. With more time spent online, with algorithmic divisions polarising us, and connecting to more people we don’t know, I wanted to explore the extent this phenomenon is now in effect in our lives.

I first learned about this effect in my social psychology course during my first degree. As with all powerful psychological theories, it was not only evidence by academic studies and real-world cases, but also had demonstrable associations in my life. This insidious effect explained why regular people could be a part of horrible events by their inaction or apathy. One of the most shocking examples was the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964. Returning home from work and in the parking lot of her apartment complex, she was violently attacked at knifepoint, raped and stabbed to death over the next half hour. The attacker left the scene for several minutes to then return and stab her several other times. Nearly 40 people witnessed the attack but not one called for help or try to aid Kitty until she was dead. The people in her apartment building weren’t bad people, they just all believed that someone else would have called for help or stepped in to help.

Psychologists and sociologists replicated study after study to understand why this effect happens and what factors influenced its likelihood. After decades of research, they identified six main factors influencing people’s psychology about whether they are likely to come to your aid.1

  1. Familiarity- when there are more people we know in the group, the more likely others will intervene.

  2. Clarity- when it is unclear about what is exactly happening, people are less likely to take action.

  3. Connection - when there is a connection with the person struggling, even momentarily people are more likely to help. This could include meeting their eye, relating to their experience or perceiving a similarity between them and someone you do know.

  4. Qualification - if the person qualified or has been trained in these situations they will more likely help, such as a first aider responding to someone with a medical emergency.

  5. Group Size- in general, the larger the group, the less likely any one individual will help. One example is the stampedes of people running over each other for a Black Friday sale.

  6. Discrimination - if others have biases or negative views of the person in need’s identity they are less likely to help. This can include prejudice against different ethnic, socioeconomic and gender groups.

While many of these studies have been done in person over the years, we have limited studies about the impacts of technology on this effect. Trolls, stalking, harassment and targeted hate crimes are part of the known risks to our participation in online groups, such as social media. Ask yourself honestly, would the diffusion of responsibility effect impact your actions if you witnessed an attack online?

We’re not all bad people, but our socialising online is changing and has all main influencing factors on the diffusion of responsibility effect at play. For most online groups, we are less familiar with most of our connections, our connections are loosely-tied together, we don’t have a clear oversight over a lot of the behaviours that happen, most of us have never been trained or know how to help, the group size online is astronomical and discrimination is hardcoded into the algorithms propelling our own biases of different groups. If most of our social engagements are starting to take place online how does that impact our willingness to help others when returning to physical spaces too? It becomes a lot of responsibility for one person to hold (unless superhero really exist)? We can’t ‘save’ everyone, but when we do witness an attack shouldn’t we be prepared to help?

How humans have survived and evolved is because of our social connections, relationships and bonds. We all know the reciprocal nature this social bond rests on. If you want someone to help you in an emergency, then be prepared to help them. Whether that is learning CPR course, taking bystander training to combat street harassment or actively getting involved to be anti-racist. It isn’t easy these days to be responsible, but it is important we equip ourselves and keep learning from these situations if we expect the same from others. We’re all in this together and have a responsibility to each other to keep it that way.