Diffusion Of Responsibility Essay Student

We donate more when fatalities are high but not when # of survivors is high - Donations to the Orlando shooting victims and families has been quite large.  As recent research has found, people donate more money when there is a high number of deaths, even though we should be donating more when there is a large number of survivors who really need the help.

Empathy - "Woman runs over frog [accidentally] with a lawnmower -- then flies him hundreds of miles for surgery."

Pay it forward - "At one Philly pizza parlor, customers can 'pay it forward' by pre-purchasing $1 slices of pizza for people in need."

5-year-old helps homeless man

Sacrificing one's life

Truly altruistic behavior? - Although this is a very sad case, I am always looking for good examples that raise the question of whether humans helping can ever be considered unselfish. [added 2/2/15]

Omission bias - Is failure to not helpless reprehensible? Are people more responsible if they do something (vs. fail to do something)? omission bias- we tend to blame outcomes on actions rather than inactions.

Ex: A boy throws a ball (action) that another boy could have gotten but wasn’t paying attention (inaction) and it breaks a car window. Who is most to blame? Ans: boy who threw ball

You are walking up the street in SF when you see a trolley careening out of control. It is about to hit and kill 5 people. You happen to be standing next to a switch that could divert the trolley to a second track where it would kill only one person. Do you flip the switch? Ans: yes b/c action is indirectly causing one person’s death, but saving 5

You are standing on a bridge in SF when you see a trolley below you careening out of control. It is about to hit and kill 5 people. You are standing next to a large man who is leaning over the railing to see what is happening. If you push him off the bridge, he will fall on the track and be killed, yet his weight will stop the trolley saving the 5 people. Do you push him? Ans: no because action directly caused person’s death (H/T George Schreer) [added 2/2/15]

"Prosocial bonuses increase employee satisfaction and team performance" - "In three field studies, we explore the impact of providing employees and teammates with prosocial bonuses, a novel type of bonus spent on others rather than on oneself." The first link is to the research article; the second link is to an online article about the research. [added 1/29/15]

Social loafing/bystander effect - Sam Sommers provides a nice example in the form of a mass email request for help. [added 4/3/13]

Priming of helping - "Men who had been approached by a woman asking for directions to Valentine Street were willing to help a different woman retrieve her cell phone from “thieves”, helping her almost 37% of the time. Men asked for directions to Martin Street only helped 20% of the time. The simple mention of “Valentine” unconsciously motivated men to behave in a more chivalrous manner." [added 4/01/13]

Bystander effect - about the individual who was pushed on the tracks of an oncoming subway train in New York City [added 3/5/13]

Identifiable-victim effect - We are more likely to help identified victims than unidentified or statistical victims. Here's an example of personalizing victims, in this case a group that many are uninterested in helping to begin with. [added 6/20/12]

Reciprocal altruism - Woman dropped three valuable rings into a Salvation Army bucket apparently because the Army helped her grandfather years ago. [added 6/18/12]

Example of heroic rescue - During the recent Norwegian massacre, a tourist helped rescue several teens on the island where the shooting took place. [added 1/15/12]

Bystander intervention - case of bystanders and a medical team helping a man survive despite going 96 minutes without a pulse [4/9/11]

Good Samaritan case[added 12/5/10]

Bystander apathy - A very disturbing video -- A man who helped rescue a woman from an attack was seriously injured in the attack. He is now lying on the sidewalk dying. Watch the response of passersby. (Passersby - is that a word?) [added 6/19/10]

Man punches shark - video about a man who "punched a shark to save his dog's life" [3/26/09]

Children modeling parents - cute little video [added 12/12/07]

Ambiguity of Situation - I see examples all the time of how the level of ambiguity of need for help in a situation has changed over time in our society. For example, quite a few years ago if the interior light of a car was on it usually meant the person forgot to turn it off. If you saw that person leaving his car with the light still on you might mention it to him. As the technology advanced so that more and more cars had interior lights that turned off by themselves, there was a period of time during which that experience was an ambiguous one (at least for me). Is this one of those cars? Eventually, it was no longer ambiguous. Now, if I see someone close up a car and leave and the interior light is still on, I am quite confident that will turn off on its own. No help is needed. A similar pattern has occurred more recently (at least for me!) with car headlights. A few years ago, even if you knew that interior light was going off on its own, if the headlights were left on you might mention it to the driver. Now, some headlights turn off on their own shortly after the driver leaves. So, now I'm back in the land of ambiguity! Eventually, I imagine, when I see a driver walk away from his car, and it's rolling backwards down the hill, I'll think, "Oh, it's one of those new ones that park themselves."

Bystander effect - Sam Sommers comments on an event that happened in China in which passersby ignored a young child lying in the road who had been struck by a truck. Read Sam's commentary at the first link; here is a video which shows the kid being hit by a truck and then ignored by some people passing by. [added 1/15/12]

Bystander Effect - When we talked about altruism and helpfulness in class two past experiences crossed my mind. The first experience was on my sister's birthday, December 22nd. Our family had a dinner planned for this occasion. We were all to meet at a restaurant at a particular time. The weather on her birthday was terrible. It was very cold and icy. Also, there was quite a bit of snow still on the ground from the previous week. Well, I got stuck in my parking spot at my apartment. And, no one helped. I saw several people look out their patio windows at me, but no one helped. My tires were spinning and I know people must of heard my car. I was absolutely frozen. Well, finally I managed to dig around my tires and rock myself out of the rut. I was late for the dinner and had a chill all night. I was very mad that people saw me and did not help. I just couldn't believe they would watch a girl struggle whom they had seen in the apartment hallways and laundry room. However, after talking about the reasons some people help and some don't in class, I understand a little bit more. I believe the reason most people didn't help was just the ambiguity of the situation and lack of empathy. These people were just unsure about whether I really needed help or the consequence if they did help. And, it was so cold perhaps it just was not worth the effort. In addition, there was obviously diffusion of responsibility as there were many observers, yet not one helped. Perhaps, the observers thought someone would eventually help me and each passed the buck to the other.

Bystander Effect - This PBS site accompanying a Frontline show on the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan massacre details how many countries stood by and did little to prevent the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans.

Identifiable victim bias (Empathy) - Why are we more willing to empathize with and help a few dozen stranded miners in Chile than the millions affected by flooding in Pakistan? This article suggests it is, in part, because of the miners are more clearly identifiable. [added 9/25/10]

Empathy - "Doctors who express empathy get highest patient ratings." [added 12/26/07]

Empathy - Relating to my husband's broken leg experience (again!), I offered some help to a woman last week at school. She was on two crutches and looked wistfully at the coffee pots before class started. I offered her my seat so she could put her bad leg on the table and got her some coffee. After living with this situation for so long, I know it's impossible to carry a cup of coffee while on crutches. This is a perfect example relating to my notes on "conditions affecting whether or not to help -- #6 empathy -- more likely to help similar others because easier to empathize/easier to relate to them." (I know punctuation is incorrect, but here I am quoting my incorrectly punctuated class notes!) This was the only condition which warranted me to help: there were many other people around; I was anonymous to her; I didn't feel guilty about anything; and I didn't even think about her response.

Empathy - The second experience was when I was on my way home which at this time was to my parents' house. I saw a jogger on the side of the road which looked injured as he was lying down and holding his leg. It was dark out and I wanted to stop, but thought maybe I should get my dad to come with me. So, I drove quickly home and dashed into the house to tell my dad. My dad was very eager to help just as I was because he was a jogger. You see, both of my parents and myself are joggers (similarity was the key here). Anyhow, my dad went with me to go see if we could help this injured jogger. Well, he wobbled himself to a parking lot down the street when my dad and I found him. He was not a jogger, but a drunk with long hair and earrings and a beautiful orange jacket. I was so glad my dad was with me! My dad and I brought the man home and I apologized to my dad for mistaking him for a jogger. He was very understanding. I believe both my dad and I could relate to what I perceived as an injured jogger. My dad has limped home himself several times. We definitely had empathy for this supposed jogger. I believe our moods were good too. I know my dad and myself well enough to know that if either one of us were in a bad mood, we would not have bothered.

Fear inhibits helping - Here's an interesting and disturbing first-person story of a journalist (and others) observing a helpless victim receiving a vicious beating and not intervening. This link takes you to an interesting blog which connects this event to some research on what is courage. [added 11/17/07]

Guilt - Fascinating story of Aki Ra who was forced at age 5 to plant land mines for the Khmer Rouge. "Ra regretted what he had done during his time in the Khmer Rouge—and he vowed to spend the rest of his life making it up to his fellow Cambodians. He remembered where he had buried many of the land mines, and knew how to quickly and safely disarm them. So, armed only with a metal detector, a small pocketknife, and several other small tools, he began locating land mines on the ground and disarming them by hand....So, for more than 20 years, Ra has traveled through the Cambodian countryside, disarming thousands of active mines and leading safety education programs for villages. Though the mines are filled with TNT and could detonate at any second, Ra has never been injured in his work." [added 3/6/10]

Guilt - I went through the Starbucks' drive thru over the weekend and after I order the lady asked if I would alike to buy a pot of coffee for the soldiers in Iraq. I was not ready for the question; I was kind of frazzled from other things going on (drive thrus wig me out, expecially when it is the building and a curb and the car has to fit between the two....YIKES). Anyway, I said yes because how do you say no. Guilt surely took over me. I would have felt horrible if I said no, but why... who knows if the soldiers will really get the pot of coffee. It was certainly somewhat of a selfish act because I did not have to worry about feeling guilty for the rest of the day. [added 4/16/08]

"The guilty green" - Guilt and Helping - Describes the guilt many environmentally-conscious people feel when their behavior is not always consistent with their beliefs [added 12/26/07]

Refusal of "help" - Londoners mostly passed up an offer for a free 5 pound note in this little "experiment" conducted by a price comparison website.[added 7/31/08]

Responsibility - An example of someone not helping because they feel that the event was internally caused and controllable was found in the movie "Burning Bed." In it, Farrah Fawcett is being abused by her husband and goes to her mother for help. Her mother's response is, "You make a hard bed; you got to lie in it." Here the mother clearly feels that since the daughter decided to marry the man -- a controllable, internally caused decision -- she isn't as deserving of help. It's her fault, she'll have to deal with it.

Social Responsibility Norm - Commuters push train to help passenger - interesting example of mass helping [added 2/2/15]

Social Responsibility Norm - During flooding in Gurnee, the TV reporters interviewed many people who were sand-bagging, asking them why they were helping out. Many responded in line with the social responsibility norm. They didn't live in the area, had nothing to gain or lose from stopping the flooding, but were out there helping because it seemed the right thing to do. I think that many were also motivated by what the book terms "perceived reasons for the need." People are more likely to provide help if they attribute the difficulty to external causes beyond the person's control. Here the rain causing the river to rise and flood would be an example of an uncontrollable event externally caused.

Using social norms - Hey, who put those pink flamingos on my lawn? "The flamingos were placed there by someone other than the home's resident to get the homeowner to donate money. In order to have the flamingos removed, the recipient needed to make a donation. The recipient is also encouraged to "flock" a friend's lawn in order to get them to contribute as well." [added 7/5/09]

Bystander Effect: Reactions and Causes

The bystander effect is an element of social psychology that implies that when the number of bystanders is increased in an emergency situation, the less likely any of the bystanders will aid, or assist in the situation (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2013). The bystander effect is one of the most significant well established social psychology findings, which manifested in the late 1960’s (Levine & Crowther, 2013). The cause for social psychologist to begin to study how bystanders react during emergency situations, was due to Kitty Genovese being attacked and murdered in front of her Queens, New York apartment in 1964 (Aronson et al., 2013). Kitty’s unfortunate attack lasted nearly 45 minutes and was witnessed by nearly 38 residents who did not assist by calling police, or trying to stop her attacker (Aronson et al., 2013). Kitty’s death, along with social psychologists research established not only the bystander effect, but other elements that are related to the reasons why the bystander effect occurs in groups of bystanders. The causes are significant to the explanation of the bystander effect and implore different elements in their explanation and relativity. The bystander effect contains different components related to the assistance of the bystanders helping behavior, as well as different social and cultural manifestations and their relevant causes.

Diffusion of Responsibility and Pluralistic Ignorance One of the main reasons why the bystander effect occurs is due to a social influence being present known as diffusion of responsibility (Heroic Imagination Project, 2013). The diffusion of responsibility is a phenomenon related to the bystander’s sense of responsibility to aid and decreases when there are more witnesses present (Aronson et al., 2013). Diffusion of responsibility simple implies that bystanders do not react because they feel that other bystanders will respond to the emergency situation and render appropriate assistance (Schwartz, & Gottlieb, 1976). This phenomenon only requires one bystander and increases in larger groups and decreases in smaller groups.

Pluralistic Ignorance relates to helping behavior, as well as to pluralistic ignorance being present when bystanders think that others are interpreting the incident in a certain way, when indeed they are not (Aronson et al., 2013). This thought comes into notion as bystanders witness a situation, then base their reaction to the incident by gaging other onlookers responses to the incident. If the bystander sees others reacting a certain way, then they too will be more apt to express their thought of the incident as not being too big of an issue, thus effecting their helping influences.

Knowing How to Help When a bystander has decided to help, they must decide what kind of help is appropriate for the situation (Aronson et al., 2013). Rendering assistance also incorporates decision implementation factors that should be determined based upon the needs of the situation and if the bystander is qualified to provide proper assistance (Aronson et al., 2013). For example, if somebody collapses and a bystander does not know CPR, but decides to assist, they should probably assist by calling for emergency services and trying to find another bystander that can provide CPR. Often time’s bystanders will not assist because they are afraid they might make matters worse, or place themselves in danger if the situation is considered dangerous (Aronson et al., 2013). A study by Peter Fischer and Tobias Greitmeyer (2013) showed that in some circumstances, an additional bystander can increase individual intervention in situations where the person helping might expect negative consequences, but does not have the same effect when bystanders do not have a positive effect in situations involving low negative consequences (Fischer & Greitmeyer, 2013).

Cultural Differences of Helping Behavior and The Bystander Effect

Some social psychologist believe the phenomenon of the bystander has little impact and will lead to the same affects regardless of the culture. However, some studies have analyzed that culture can play a significant role in determining if a bystander will or will not assist during certain situations. Meta-analysis data show that individualist societies contain loose bonds between individuals, causing individuals to have the notion to look for themselves causing an independence reward (Pozzoli, Ang, & Gini, 2012). This differs from non-individualist societies, because non-individualist societies have been shown to contain a closer community bond, thus causing an increase in bystanders and their wiliness to help during a certain situations (Pozzoli et al., 2012). Cultural differences and helping behavior can also contain social categories that cause a higher chance for individuals to intervene (Levine & Crowther, 2013). When a group of bystanders are part of shared social category of membership, they will have an increased chance of one of them intervening if both groups contain specific norms associated with their group (Levine & Crowther, 2013). However, despite the increase chance of assistance, group size can still affect intervention (Levine & Crowther, 2013).

Conclusion The bystander effect is a unique phenomenon related to social psychology that contains many different components related to the influencing of helping behavior. Since the bystander effects emergence, it has become one of the most prolific forms of social psychology and appears in nearly all social psychology undergraduate textbooks (Levine & Crowther, 2013). The bystander effect contains elements that ultimately provide plausible reasons as to why some choose to help or ignore certain situations. Typically, ones decision to assist is impacted heavily by diffusion of responsibility and other aspects of knowing when and if to help. Other components, like cultural differences and social situations can also determine the outcome, based on group size and the totality of the circumstance.


Aronson, E., Wilson, T., &Akert,R. (2013). Social Psychology (8th ed.). Upper Saddle, New Jersey:Pearson Education Inc.

Fischer, P., & Greitemeyer, T. (2013). The Positive Bystander Effect: Passive Bystanders Increase Helping in Situations With High Expected Negative Consequences for the Helper. Journal Of Social Psychology, 153(1), 1-5. doi:10.1080/00224545.2012.697931

Heroic Imagination Project. (2013). Bystander Effect and Diffusion of Responsibility. Retrieved from http://heroicimagination.org/public-resources/social-influence-forces/bystander-effect-and-diffusion/.

Levine, M., & Crowther, S. (2008). The responsive bystander: How social group membership and group size can encourage as well as inhibit bystander intervention. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 95(6), 1429-1439. doi:10.1037/a0012634

Pozzoli, T., Ang, R. P., & Gini, G. (2012). Bystanders’ Reactions to Bullying: A Cross-cultural Analysis of Personal Correlates Among Italian and Singaporean Students. Social Development, 21(4), 686-703. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2011.00651.x Schwartz, S. H., & Gottlieb, A. (1976). Bystander reactions to a violent theft: Crime in Jerusalem. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 34(6), 1188-1199. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.34.6.1188

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