Diffusion of Responsibility
May 1, 2007
An experience I had this winter stands out in my mind as a wonderful example of diffusion of responsibility and helping behavior. I was waiting at a tram stop and I observed a teenager throw a firecracker not too far from where I stood. The tram eventually arrived and we both got on. He sat in front and after a short while he threw a firecracker out the window, nearly hitting an elderly woman. As he chuckled, I was thinking whether or not I should do something. A few minutes past by and not a single person on the tram reacted even though I’m sure everyone noticed. Eventually I decided to act out of character, go up to him and ask what he thinks he’s doing. We had a brief exchange in which I was slightly nervous so I wasn’t as lucid as I’d like to be, but I basically asked him if he was normal. He said something to the extent of “what is normal”, which is an interesting question in itself but not necessarily in this context. After a while I stepped to the side and didn’t interact with him further. Soon after, a woman from the back of the tram began to tell the teenager off and he began to curse at her. This soon had two older men involved in the confrontation which resulted in the teenager being thrown off the tram at the next stop.
What this experience illustrates is the hesitancy for individuals to act while in a group. The diffusion of responsibility where individuals feel that someone else in the group is going to handle the matter therefore they do not have to. However, once one person breaks the ice and acts it seems as if individuals are more likely to assist. It may not be a stretch to say that as more people get involved the more sanctioned it is to take more drastic measures.