If you’ve ever had the misfortune to have your car and the lack of any friendly help left you wondering if you and your car look unapproachable – fear not. As with many public situations, there is a reason for this – the diffusion of responsibility.

There have been several studies looking into this theory, as it offers an explanation for the behaviour in a multitude of events, such as the Holocaust, gang culture and more recently, global warming. The diffusion of responsibility explains why some people are less likely to take action or feel responsible when they’re part of a large group of people. Bystanders feel a decrease in their sense of responsibility because they share it with everyone else around them, who are also ignoring the situation in front of them, making the individual pressure dissipate.

The most famous case of diffusion of responsibility, which went on to influence many studies exploring the theory, occurred in 1964. Kitty Genovese, 28, returned to her home in Queens, New York, after a late shift at work. She was walking towards her building, in a built-up, urban residential area, when a man came running at her from out of the shadows. He stabbed her and eventually killed her – retuning to the scene of the crime a total of three times over a period of 35 minutes. During this time, Kitty screamed out for help constantly, only to see the flickering on and off of lights as people around her watched.

The unfathomable behaviour of the bystanders soon made the nation go into moral overdrive, and psychologists had their work cut out for them trying to comprehend what had happened and why. One study carried out by John Darley and Bibb Latané concluded that 85% of participants helped in an emergency when they were with one other person, compared to 62% that were with two other people, and a mere 31% that were with five others.

They concluded that when surrounded by more people, participants felt less personal responsibility to intervene. They projected this explanation onto the Kitty Genovese study, explaining that as other bystanders saw lights flickering on and off, assumed someone else would help. They described this behaviour as ‘altruistic inertia’.

Similarly, in a situation whereby a driver is stranded on the side of a busy road, drivers may assume that with so many people passing, someone else is likely to stop and help. So, take heed in the consoling fact that you don’t emit scary, unapproachable vibes.


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