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The Diffusion Of Responsibility

Why assigning responsibility to groups doesn't work

Photo: simminch

Once while I was jogging along Lake Michigan, I came upon a large crowd surrounding a middle-aged man lying supine on the ground. I stopped to assess the scene and saw the man wasn't moving—at all. Two people were bending over him and trying to shake him awake.

"What happened?" I asked.

"He fell," someone said, a woman.

"Did anyone see it?"

She nodded. "He was walking along and maybe he tripped or something—I couldn't tell—but then he just...crumpled."

I identified myself as a doctor, pushed my way through the crowd, and checked to see if he was breathing. He wasn't. Did he have a pulse? He didn't.

"Has anyone called 9-1-1?" I asked.

No one answered.


This wasn't an evil crowd that was glad someone had collapsed. It was a large crowd, of strangers, many of whom had undoubtedly seen him collapse besides the woman to whom I'd spoken. They were all concerned, I'm sure—and at least two among them hadn't entirely surrendered to the shock of seeing someone fall unconscious. But no one, it seemed, had done the single most critical thing, the thing that literally meant the difference between life and death for him: called 9-1-1.

In my view, the likely explanation relates to a phenomenon I call the diffusion of responsibility. Simply put, when a task is placed before a group of people, there's a strong tendency for each individual to assume someone else will take responsibility for it—so no one does.

Malcolm Gladwell famously put forth his notion of this as an explanation for why not one of Kitty Genovese's neighbors who presumably heard her scream intervened or even called the police while she was being murdered in the courtyard of her building in New York. Though a subsequent uncovering of facts suggests the original story of 38 people literally watching her die through their windows while doing nothing represented a significant distortion of what actually happened, the truth that one or two of her neighbors heard her screams yet managed to explain them away as something less ominous than they were is likely not.

That kind of narrative rationalization—that is, a story we tell ourselves that relieves us of responsibility to act—is also what underlies the diffusion of responsibility. Knowing that others heard the same scream, or received the same email request, or came upon a man down powerfully tempts us to assume someone else has taken responsibility for doing what needs to be done.

Many reasons for our falling prey to this assumption exist. We're all busy with our own lives and don't want to get involved. We may not believe we're the best person to assume responsibility. We may not care about the issue involved. We may be lazy. After all, no four words in the English language are ever easier to say than: it's not my problem.


You can choose to live your life that way, dividing obstacles that come your way into yours and theirs, ignoring the principle of dependent origination, which essentially states that we're all in this together and whether we realize it or not all rise and fall as such. Certainly when help could be requested but isn't or when it's offered and refused, the problem isn't yours to solve—but to not care whether it's solved, to turn your back on someone else's plight in your heart—well, the more you practice that, the easier it becomes to tell yourself someone else will take care of things you should be instead. And if the world becomes populated with enough people who think that way, that someone else will do it (whatever "it" is), we'll only be seeing more disasters like the BP oil spill, and debacles like the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide will repeat themselves. Just remembering these tragedies isn't enough.

Or, you can live with the consistent assumption that you're here to help others in whatever way you can, stepping up constantly to whatever plate life thrusts before you without being asked. It only takes is practice. People who think this way don't ask, "Who will do it?" They just assume if a problem finds them it's theirs to help solve.


Knowing the principle of diffusion of responsibility holds sway in the hearts of many may explain the often frustrating inaction with which we find ourselves faced on an almost daily basis, but it also points the way to changing it. The key is getting others to feel personally responsible for helping to solve problems they may not consider their own. Truly great companies know this, which is why they put incentives in place to motivate their employees to provide great customer service. If you've ever had the fortune to encounter a service provider who works in a system that provides such incentives you know just how refreshing and wonderful people are who take responsibility for helping others solve problems.

How can you make someone care about an outcome as much as you do? It's not easy, but the following may get you thinking about it creatively:

  1. By displaying leadership. Inspiring others generates internal motivation—a far more effective means than external motivation for getting others to care.
  2. By making it seem personal. Find a way to give others a stake in the outcome, whether financial, emotional, moral, or otherwise. Figure out why someone else should care and explain it to them. Don't make the common mistake of presuming that if something is important to you it's important to others. This, by the way, is something Congress would do well to think about. Rather than set up watchdogs to motivate industries externally, the systems they set up would be far more effective if they were constructed with incentives that motivated desired behaviors (increased attention to safety, proper banking practices, etc.) internally. The country is too big to count on watchdogs catching everyone's mistakes/negligent behavior. We need systems where people are incentivized to catch themselves.
  3. Target individuals rather than groups. Don't allow the psychology of the diffusion of responsibility a chance to take hold in the first place. Don't request help from groups; request it from individuals. This applies to every form of communication but especially, I think, to email where the impulse to include more than one person in the "To:" field is strong.

I was thinking specifically of this last point when I found myself confronted with the unconscious man lying along the running path on the shores of Lake Michigan. After assessing his condition myself, I looked up directly at the woman who'd answered my questions initially and said, "Call 9-1-1. He isn't breathing." By asking only her I made only her and no one else personally responsible. I administered CPR until the paramedics arrived, about five minutes later. They only had to shock him twice before they got a pulse back. And then he did the most amazing thing, something I'd never seen happen as fast in all my years of watching people's hearts stop and be restarted in hospitals: he opened his eyes.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

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