Diffusion of Responsibility
The World Around Us
May 20, 2022

Diffusion of Responsibility

DIFFUSION of responsibility, otherwise known as the bystander effect, occurs when people fail to act, instead expecting that someone else will do what they failed to do. The more people involved in a given situation, the more likely it is that each person will do nothing, believing someone else from the group or community will probably respond.

In 1968, in a much celebrated and groundbreaking study psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latané set up an experiment where a distress call made it appear that a person nearby had suffered an injury. When subjects heard the cry, and thought they were the only ones who heard it, 85% of them helped. However, if subjects thought there was another person who heard the call too, only 62% helped. If subjects thought that four other people also heard the cry for help, only 31% took action.

When extrapolated to a broader societal level, the implication is that in certain situations, the responsibility to act is diffused to someone. When this attitude gains critical mass, the result is that hardly anyone acts and society devolves into a community of bystanders.

According to the University of Texas, diffusion of responsibility makes people feel less pressure to act because they believe, correctly or incorrectly, that someone else will do so. When people do not feel responsible for a situation, they feel less guilty when they do nothing to help. In this way, diffusion of responsibility keeps people from paying attention to their own conscience. This results in ethical fading at the individual and societal levels.

This is the context in which I want to speak about the problem of crime in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, especially gender-based crime. For a while now, crimes against women and young girls have been a problem, including murder, rape, sexual violence and violence in general.

The recent discovery of the body of a young female in a bag, and subsequent reports about the number of stab wounds inflicted on her are offensive to the sensibilities. The senseless killing of another young woman over the Easter weekend, and the countless other acts of violence and criminality against women and young girls are equally nerve racking.

Unfortunately, it appears that in some respects, we have become a country of bystanders where these issues are concerned.

To the extent that crime and violence are manifestations of a broader problem of moral and ethical failure, then the religious community has a role to play. Where crime and violence have certain social antecedents, such as unemployment, poverty and lack of opportunities, then there is a role for government in terms of policies and programmes, as well as the private sector in terms of expanding the workforce.

There is also a policing element which requires that the culture of policing be such that actual violence or threats of violence are met with the seriousness they deserve. The justice system must also act as a credible deterrent, without forgetting the reform aspect when that deterrence fails.

In some instances, perhaps family structures are compromised. However, there is also the individual. Certain acts of criminality suggest a level of depravation that betrays all rationality. Ultimately, everyone has to take responsibility for their actions. People have to learn to moderate their own behaviour and urges.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a systemic problem at play. Essentially, there must be something fundamentally wrong in a society which appears to routinely direct violence towards women and girls.

Several years ago whilst in high school, I participated in the Young Leaders Programme. Incidentally, the theme that year was “Nurturing a Culture of Peace: Our Heritage, Our Youth, Our Future.” We were once regarded as a peaceful and peace loving people. Our culture and heritage were once such that peace did reign from shore to shore.

Sadly, we have moved away from this. We have our work cut out to return to this culture of peace.

Hopefully, we are all up to the task at every level of society. It is our individual and collective responsibility to address the crime monster – a responsibility we cannot diffuse or pass on to someone else.

Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development. Email: joelkmrichards@ gmail.com