Diffusion of Responsibility: Definition, Theory & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Diffusion of…
  • 1:00 Characteristics of…
  • 2:30 Examples
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jade Mazarin

Jade is a board certified Christian counselor with an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy, and a certification in Natural Health. She is also a freelance writer on emotional health and spirituality.

In this lesson, we will define the theory of diffusion of responsibility and look into its features. We will also consider real life examples that display the phenomenon.

What Is Diffusion of Responsibility?

What would you do if you were walking along the street of a major city, when all of a sudden a woman falls to the ground about 20 feet away from you? Would you run to help her? Or would you look around, waiting for someone else to do something? Chances are, thoughts would run through your mind about what could be happening, if you should do anything, or what those around you will do.

It has been observed by psychologists that we tend to act differently in a large group than we would alone. Perhaps if no one was with you on the street and the same woman collapsed by herself, you would feel more responsible for calling 911. However, when many other people are present, you feel less personally obligated to help.

While some may deny this tendency, when actually put in a similar public situation, it is the reaction of the majority of people. The observation of the phenomena that one feels less responsible to act in a large group is labeled diffusion of responsibility.

Characteristics of Diffusion of Responsibility

The basic features that comprise diffusion of responsibility are:

1. Lacking a sense of personal responsibility

As mentioned earlier, it feels different when we are the only person present than when others are present. Most of us assume that in a public setting it is not clearly our responsibility to act. 'There are other people here, they can do something about it,' might be the thought.

2. Minimizing the feeling of guilt

While some of us may feel some guilt for not acting to help another, it is easier to share blame or give it over entirely to those around. If we feel others are responsible, then the outcome is not only up to us, but also up to them.

3. Looking to others for guidance

We may know something needs to be done but doubt our course of action. Like with the initial example of the woman collapsing, you may think to yourself, 'What just happened? Is she okay?' We wonder if someone else in the crowd knows better than we do about what's going on, or what to do about it. In groups we often look for the guidance of others.

4. Increasing with group size

Psychologists have noticed that as the group gets bigger, we tend to be less and less likely to help another. The more people who have the potential to step in, the more we feel we do not have to. Even the addition of each new person lowers the tendency to act.


The theory of diffusion of responsibility comes from the psychological concept the bystander effect. In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in her home. Despite hearing her screams and cries for help, none of Kitty's neighbors took the initiative to call the police. When one finally made the call, it was too late. It was shocking to the nation that no one acted soon enough. Psychologists who observed and explained this situation called it the bystander effect, where those who are present have a diffusion of responsibility.

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