Professionalism/Diffusion of Responsibility

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Diffusion of responsibility, also referred to as the "bystander effect," is a psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to take responsibility or take action when there is a greater number of people present.[1] This phenomenon is commonly observed under two separate perspectives. The first is that the individual in a scenario assumes that others have already taken responsibility and therefore they have no moral obligation. Or in another view, the individual might feel false security in feeling that no one can find them responsible because there is no way to single out their behaviors from the rest of the group.[2] Other individual perspectives include, an individual choosing to not get involved due to rational and irrational fears. For instance, fear of physical harm, public embarrassment, involvement with police procedures, lost work days and jobs, and other unknown dangers.[3] Diffusion of responsibility not only does explain individuals actions in everyday life but also can help explain individuals partaking in illegal or unethical activity against their own moral judgment. These individuals often deny fault, claiming they were merely acting under the orders of a superior.

Characteristic of Diffusion of Responsibility[edit]

The basic features that constitutes diffusions of responsibility: [4]

1. Lacking a sense of personal responsibility

2. Lessening the feeling of guilt

3. Looking for guidance in others

4. Increase with group size


Many real world scenerios have been explained using this phenomenon. The case of Kitty Genovese is perhaps one of the most well-known examples where bystanders failed to intervene and prevent a crime. The American soldiers involved in the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam war is an extreme example of people following unethical orders from an authority, and ignoring their own judgments.

Kitty Genovese[edit]

Around 3:30 am on March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese, a manager of a bar, was walking home from work when she encountered a man walking towards her. [5] Despite her efforts to run, Winston Moseley caught her and began to attack her. After Mosely stabbed her twice, a man in an apartment above the street called out to "leave that woman alone," causing Moseley to flee into a nearby ally where his car was parked. The man in the apartment above began to defy the bystander effect by taking action in an emergency situation, but unfortunately he did not follow through by either calling for help or helping Kitty himself. After yelling out to Moseley, the man turned out his lights and was not heard again. When Moseley saw this, he returned to Genovese where he continued to attack and stab her until she died.

This murder in Queens, NY would not have received as much attention as it did if the New York Times had not released an article questioning human behavior on the basis that 38 neighbors had either heard or seen the attack. It was this article that began to raise concerns of the negative consequences of the bystander effect. The murder and the related article also coined the term Genovese Syndrome as an alternative to the bystander effect.

Black Friday Shoppers[edit]

Jdimypai Damour in the Black Friday incident.

Around two thousand shoppers anxiously waited for the Walmart in Valley Stream, NY to open on Black Friday, November 28, 2008. Six employees were assigned to hold back the enthusiastic mob from the store’s sliding doors. Unfortunately the sliding doors gave way to the power of the crowd, and Wal-Mart employee Jdimypai Damour fell and was trampled by the crowd.[6] Nobody stopped to help move him out of harm’s way and even when help arrived, the mob continued to jostle and ignore the paramedics and officers. Damour was taken to a nearby hospital where he was later pronounced dead.

Due to the large, eager crowd entering the Wal-mart, customers were able to diffuse the responsibility of helping Damour as they assumed another customer, perhaps one more qualified to do so, would provide assistance.

Wang Yue[edit]

On October 13, 2011 in Foshan, Guangdong province in China, a two-year old girl, Wang Yue, fell into the street where she was hit by two cars. She remained in the road for over eight minutes until a woman, Chen Xianmei, came to her rescue.[7] Reports claim that at least 18 people passed by Wang Yue but did not attempt to help as they saw her bleeding and in pain in the middle of the street. Graphic Video Showing the Wang Yue Incident

Wang Yue before and after the incident.

When video and reports of the accident were uploaded to the Internet, many tried to justify the lack of intervention with Chinese culture, but behaviors related to diffusion of responsibility are apparent in most, if not all, cultures around the world.[8] Other reasons as to why people did not intervene include not wanting to being wrongfully criminalized for the crime, not hearing Wang Yues cry due to rain and just simply not seeing her on the road as they passed by. Due to an increased amount of people having the reason of not wanting to being wrongfully criminalized for the crime in many similar cases the Chinese government set the Good Samaritan Law in 2013 that "offers legal protection to people who give reasonable assistance to those who are, or who they believe to be, injured, ill, in peril, or otherwise incapacitated." [9]

My Lai Massacre[edit]

On March 16, 1968, Second Lieutenant William Calley killed 22 My Lai villagers in what is now known as the Vietnam My Lai Massacre. [10] This was the mass murder of about 500 unarmed civilians, mostly consisting of women, children, infants, and elderly people in South Vietnam. 26 United States soldiers were charged with criminal offenses for their actions, but Calley was the only one who got convicted.

Vietnamese woman and children during the My Lai Massacre.

My Lai was a peaceful, thriving village before the United States Army moved in. It was a heavily mined area where the Viet Cong were deeply entrenched. However, numerous members of the platoon had been killed in the area during the preceding weeks. The agitated troops, under Calley, entered the village for engagement with their elusive enemy. As this mission unfolded, it soon degenerated into the massacre of unarmed civilians.

At one point during the massacre, 70-80 villagers were rounded up by the platoon, forced into a ditch, and killed by Calley himself. In Calley's testimony he said that he was ordered by Captain Ernest Medina to kill everyone in the village of My Lai. There was enough evidence to convict Calley of murder, and he therefore was sentenced with life in prison. Calley's trial began on November 17, 1970 in which the military prosecution contented that Calley ordered his men to murder unarmed civilians, despite the fact that his men were not under enemy fire. After a 79 hour deliberation, the jury convicted Calley on March 29, 1971 of the premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. [11] Many people were outraged not at Calley's guilty verdict, but that he was the only one within the chain of command who was convicted. After many appeals, Calley was released in 1974, only 3 years after he entered prison.

United States Army helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, Jr., is an example of someone who overcame the bystander effect in the midst of bad leadership decisions. As he flew over the My Lai village on March 16, 1968, he noticed a large number of dead civilians on the ground. Thompson and his crew made multiple attempts to radio for help. After no response, Thompson landed his helicopter and confronted Calley- who told Thompson that this did not concern him. After the unsuccessful conversation with Calley, Thompson found a group of 10 civilians hiding in a homemade bomb shelter. He coaxed them out and convinced helicopters to evacuate them. Other helicopters soon began evacuating civilians as well. Thompson even went as far to tell his crew that if the American soldiers tried to harm the cowering villagers, then they should open fire upon the Americans.[12] After returning the civilians to their base, Thompson reported the massacre to his superiors. Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre. However, Thompson refused to accept the medal unless it was also given to his crew mates, Larry Colburn, and, posthumously, Glenn Andreotta.

In 1998, Thompson and one of his crew members returned to the village of My Lai, where they met some of the villagers that they rescued many years ago. They also dedicated a new elementary school to the children of My Lai. The decision that Thompson made so many years ago not only saved lives on that day, but also had lasting effects on the My Lai village for years to come.

Rudolf Hoess[edit]

Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz

In 1942, the Allied leaders issued a joint declaration recognizing the Holocaust. [13] Proposals for punishment included the execution of 50,000 to 100,000 German staff officers as proposed by Stalin and the summary execution of high-ranking Nazis by Churchill. It was decided that those responsible for the Holocaust would be brought to a criminal trial. The Nuremberg Trials were a series of 13 trials held in Nuremberg, Germany.

Rudolf Hoess was tried on April 15, 1946. [14] Hoess was the commandant of Auschwitz. During his time as commandant, he was personally given orders by Richsfáhrer SS Himmler for “a final solution of the Jewish question.” It was at that time that Hoess was also told that Auschwitz had been chosen. Hoess was restricted from telling anyone about the contents of that meeting stating that “no one was allowed to speak about these matters with any person and that everyone promised his life to keep the utmost secrecy.” When asked if he had felt any pity for the victims, Hoess confessed that he did; when asked why he continued to carry out his actions he responded, “In view of all these doubts which I had, the only one and decisive argument was the strict order and the reason given for it by the Reichsfáhrer Himmler.” Hoess was sentenced to execution. [15]

Shanda Sharer[edit]

In January of 1992, Laurie Tackett, Hope Rippey, Melinda Loveless, and Toni Lawrence abducted and tortured 12-year-old Shanda Sharer. Loveless believed that Shanda had stolen her girlfriend; she recruited the three other girls to assist in luring Shanda to her death by being burned alive. Initially unaware that the others were accomplices, Shanda asked for help in vain. [16]

The girls agreed to remain silent but were exposed by Lawrence who had become hysterical and reported the crime to police. Tackett, Loveless, and Rippey were sentenced to 60 years, Lawrence 20. Rippey and Lawrence were released in 2006 and 2000 respectively. Dr. Phil interview with Hope Rippey

Dan Applegate[edit]

Dan Applegate was the director of product engineering for Convair, a subcontractor of McDonnell Douglas. [17] On June 12, 1972 a DC-10 lost its cargo door while flying near Windsor, Ontario. [18] The crew managed to maintain control over the plane enough to land safely in Detroit. After this incident, Applegate delivered a memorandum to his supervisor J.B. Hurt, Convair’s program manager. In the memorandum, he addressed the safety concerns of the cargo door latching system, that “the fundamental safety of the cargo door latching system has progressively degraded since the program began in 1968.” He noted that “we discussed internally the wisdom of [the design] and recognized the degradation of safety, however, we also recognized that it was Douglas’ prerogative to make such conceptual system design decisions whereas it was our responsibility as a sub-contractor, to carry out the detail design within the framework of their decision.” At the time, Applegate and his team assumed Douglas would assume the responsibility of their design which they did not.

Failure to fully address the issue and instead perform what Applegate called a “bandaid fix” resulted in the tragedy of Turkish Airlines flight 981. The cargo door burst open as in the Windsor accident but the crew was unable to regain control of the plane. Instead, the DC-10 crashed into the forest of Ermenonville, near Paris. Sincere corrective action never took place as the aircraft accident report noted “no efficacious corrective action had followed” after the Windsor accident. [19]

Psychology Research[edit]

John Darley and Bibb Latane's Model of Helping[edit]

John Darley and Bibb Latane are two of the first psychologists who studied the bystander effect in the Kitty Genovese case. They developed a helping model that attempted to explain the critical processes bystanders go through before helping occurs.[20] Their model of helping, which is similar to other decision models, contains five steps.

  1. A bystander must first notice that an event is occurring that may require assistance. Many factors contribute to whether a bystander will notice an event.[21] For example, in an urban environment, a bystander is less likely to notice something out of the ordinary due to stimulus overload.
  2. After the bystander notices an event, they must interpret the need for help and identify the event as some form of emergency. Sometimes, an emergency will be extremely evident, yet many situations can be ambiguous.[22] Residents in the middle of a large city are used to car alarms, yelling, and other loud noises occurring at night. However, people rarely call 911 or further investigate the sound of a car alarm. Therefore, many bystanders fail to intervene in a situation solely because they fail to interpret the severity and need for help.
  3. If the situation requires help, the bystander must take personal responsibility for helping. This step is where diffusion of responsibility most comes into play. If the bystander is surrounded by other onlookers, he or she is less likely to take further action. Pluralistic ignorance states that people often look to others to determine what to do without realizing that others are looking at them for the same purpose.
  4. Once the bystander takes responsibility, he or she must decide upon an appropriate helping response. If the bystander has difficulty determining the kind of aid necessary, they are less likely to intervene.[21] Additionally, a bystander may assume that someone else is more capable or better suited to help in the situation, passing off the responsibility to another onlooker. There are two classes of intervention in emergency situations: direct and reportorial.[2] Direct intervention often requires skill, power, or knowledge, and can involve danger. However, in a reportorial invention a witness may choose to report the situation to someone more qualified to handle the situation such as a police officer or medical personnel.
  5. Finally, the bystander must take action and implement the chosen response.

Darley and Latane's Experiments[23][edit]

  1. Subjects were asked to fill out questionnaires in a room slowly being filled with smoke. One case involved a single subject; another involved 3 naive subjects; the third involved one naive subject and 2 aware subjects who purposefully ignored the smoke. It was found that 75% of alone subjects notice the smoke and leave the room to report it. Only 10% with aware subjects report the smoke while 38% of the 3-naive-subject cases reported the smoke. Togetherness reduces fear although the danger may not be reduced.
  2. Subjects wait alone, with a friend, with an aware subject, or with a stranger. There is another room - separated by a curtain- in which a recorded sound of a fall and moan about a hurt leg is played. Overall, 61% checked the other room, 14% entered via another door to the other room, and 24% only called out. No one reported the accident. Again, it seems that people are more likely to act on their own accord when with friends.
  3. A shoplifting theft was staged at a liquor store. The variables were one or two customers and one or two robbers. 20% of subjects reported the theft of their own accord while 51% reported when prompted by the store owner. Interestingly, 65% of single customers reported the theft while 56% of the two-customer setups made a report. This is in contrast to the previous 2 experiments in which it was observed that people are more likely to act when not alone. It was found that responsibility is reduced per individual when in a group.
  4. This experiment tested the actions of people when witnessing an emergency while knowing others are present but cannot see or hear them. 95% of all subjects responded to the sound of a victim within minutes. 85% of subjects who perceived that they were alone, left to report. 31% of subjects who thought there were other bystanders reported. Again, responsibility was reduced for a person when they were in a group- assuming that someone else would take actin.

Leveraging Diffusion of Responsibility[edit]

Knowing the principal of diffusion of responsibility allows the often frustrating inaction with which one finds themselves faced on an almost daily basis, to be explained. But it also points the way to change the inactivity.[24] Targeting individuals rather than groups can help leverage diffusion of responsibility.[24] When requesting help, asking someone specifically will likely result in the most useful response. A study completed in 2002 observed the relationship between private email requests and the diffusion of responsibility, anticipating that the probability of receiving a helpful response is an inverse function of the number of simultaneous addressees. Results of the study showed that not only were there more responses to emails addressed to a single recipient, but also the responses to those emails were more helpful and lengthier.[25]

It is also important to find a way to make the present situation seem personal.[24] Truly great companies know this, which is why they put incentives in place to motivate their employees to provide great customer service.[24] A bystander will most likely have no personal stake (i.e. financial, emotional) in an event that they witness. Thus, a bystanders incentive to help often comes internally. Respectable ethics and moral judgments can help motivate a bystander to provide or seek appropriate assistance.

A professional attitude that one can use by knowing the principal of diffusion of responsibility is to take advantage of the whistleblowing programs provided by some companies, or the anonymous programs that allow people to give tips to others. By reporting the violation, the whistleblower is being more responsible to the public than to the violator. This is a potential breach of professional ethics. While professionals are held to these standards, when they come into conflict, by one definition of professional, it is their duty to exercise their judgment and choose which to follow.


  1. Cherry, Kendra. "What is diffusion of responsibility?"
  2. a b Darley, John M., & Latane, Bibb (1968). "Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4), 377-383.
  3. Milgram, N., & Hollander, P. (1964). "Murder they heard." Nation, 198, 602-604.
  4. CMazarin, J. (2016). Diffusion of Responsibility: Definition, Theory and Examples.
  5. Reviving Kitty Genovese Case, and Its Passions. (1995, July 25).
  6. Black Friday turns tragic for Wal-Mart. (2008, November 28).
  7. Chinese Toddler’s Hit and Run: Mother Praises Rescuer. (2011, October 11).
  8. Toddler incident in China shows 'volunteer's dilemma'. (2011, October 18).
  9. Dan Legal Network. (n.d.). The Good Samaritan Law.
  10. The My Lai Massacre. (2005, March 25).
  11. William Calley. (2007, March 29).
  12. My Lai American Legacy Library Learning Center. (2016).
  13. Staff (2010). “Nuremberg Trials.” Accessed May 8, 2016.
  14. “Testimony of Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz.” Accessed May 8, 2016.
  15. ”Rudolf Hoess the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, is hanged next to the crematorium at the camp, 1947.” Rare Historical Photos. Accessed May 8, 2016. http://
  16. Lewis, Bob. (1993, January 31). "Thinking the unthinkable: What led 4 teens to torture, murder child?"
  17. Applegate, Dan. (1972). “Memorandum”
  18. ”Aviation Safety Network.” Aviation Safety Network. Accessed May 9, 2016.
  19. ” ASN Aircraft Accident McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 TC-JAV Bois d’Ermenonville.” Aviation Safety Network. Accessed May 8, 2016.
  20. Darley, J.M., Latané, B. (1968a). Group Inhibition of Bystander Intervention in Emergencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10(3), 215-221.
  21. a b Schroeder, D. A., Penner, L. A., Dovidio, J. F., & Piliavin, J. A. (1995). The psychology of helping and altruism. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
  22. Kafka, P. (2009, May 6). The psychology of helping: Understanding how crimes are witnessed and not reported or stopped.
  23. Latane, B., & Darley, J. Bystander "Apathy", American Scientist, 1969, 57, 244-268.
  24. a b c d Lickerman, A. (2010, June 14). The Diffusion Of Responsibility.
  25. Barron, Greg & Yechiam, Eldad (2002, September). "Private e-mail requests and the diffusion of responsibility." Computers in Human Behavior, 18(5), 507-520.