The Diffusion of Responsibility Concept in Psychology

Why Being Part of a Group May Reduce Our Sense of Responsibility

young woman walking in the middle of a busy sidewalk

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Diffusion of responsibility is a psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to take action when in the presence of a large group of people.

For example, imagine that you are in a large city on a bustling street. You notice a man fall to the ground and start convulsing as if having a seizure. Many people turn and look at the man, but no one moves to help or call for medical assistance.

Why? Because there are so many people present, no one person feels pressured to respond. Each person might think, "Oh, someone else has probably already called for help" or "No one else is doing anything, so it must not be that serious."

This situation is often used to explain the bystander effect, which suggests that the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress. This isn't to suggest that people aren't acting because they lack compassion, but they may not be able to process a traumatic event as it unfolds, especially when others are around.

Darley and Latané on Diffusion of Responsibility

In a series of classic experiments conducted in the late 1960s, researchers John Darley and Bibb Latané asked participants to fill out questionnaires in a room which suddenly began to fill with smoke.

In one scenario the subjects of the experiment were alone when the smoke entered the room. Seventy-five percent of these subjects reported the smoke to researchers right away. But in another scenario, there was one subject and two people who were part of the experiment in the room. Since those two ignored the smoke, only 10% of the “naive” subjects reported the smoke.

Darley and Latané noted that once a person notices that something is happening, a series of important decisions must first be made.

  1. The first step involves actually noticing a problem.
  2. Next, the individual must decide if what they are witnessing is actually an emergency.
  3. Next is perhaps the most critical decision in this process: Deciding to take personal responsibility to act.
  4. Then the individual has to decide what needs to be done.
  5. Finally, the bystander must actually take action.

What complicates this process is that these decisions often need to be made quickly. There is often an element of danger, stress, emergency, and sometimes personal risk involved. Adding to this pressure-packed situation is the problem of ambiguity. Sometimes it isn't entirely clear who is in trouble, what is wrong, or what needs to be done.

Factors That Influence Diffusion of Responsibility

If onlookers are not really sure what is happening, are unclear about who is in trouble, or are unsure if the person really needs assistance, then they are far less likely to take action.

But people are more likely to help if they feel some sort of connection or personal knowledge of the person in trouble. If a victim makes eye contact and asks a specific individual for help, that person will feel more compelled to take action.

And sometimes, people don’t step in to help because they feel unqualified. A person who has received specific training in first aid and CPR will probably feel more capable of offering assistance.

Researchers have also discovered a number of different factors that can increase and decrease the likelihood that diffusion of responsibility will occur. If bystanders do not know the victim, they’re less likely to help and more likely to expect someone else in the crowd to offer assistance.

Other Instances of Diffusion of Responsibility

Ever been part of a team at work and felt like not everyone was pulling their weight? This too might be an instance of diffusion of responsibility. People feel less motivation to work toward a common goal and slackers may even go out of their way to hide how little they're contributing. This is also known as "social loafing."

A much more consequential type of diffusion of responsibility occurs within hierarchical organizations. Subordinates who claim to be following orders avoid taking responsibility for committing what they logically know to be illegal or immoral actions. This kind of group behavior led to such crimes against humanity as the Nazi Holocaust. 

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Beyer F, Sidarus N, Bonicalzi S, Haggard P. Beyond self-serving bias: diffusion of responsibility reduces sense of agency and outcome monitoringSoc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2017;12(1):138-145. doi:10.1093/scan/nsw160

  2. Darley JM, Latané B. Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1968;8(4):377-383. doi:10.1037/h0025589

  3. Kassin S, Fain S, Markus HR. Social Psychology. 9th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2014.

  4. Alnuaimi OA, Robert LP, Maruping LM. Team Size, Dispersion, and Social Loafing in Technology-Supported Teams: A Perspective on the Theory of Moral Disengagement. Journal of Management Information Systems. 2010;27(1):203-230. doi:10.2753/MIS0742-1222270109

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.