We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone. – Ronald Reagan
If you’re anything like me, you spend most meetings imagining that part of the ceiling is about to fall, right before you save the person underneath it. Or, terrorists suddenly burst into the room and your sequence of takedowns is executed with mathematical deadliness.
But let’s be real—those moments only transpire like what, a dozen times in one’s life? So, today’s post is about how you can be a real, everyday hero. And it begins with understanding the psychological principle known as the diffusion of responsibility.
Simply put, the diffusion of responsibility asserts that when a task befalls a group, each person tends to assume someone else in the group will take care of the task, in which case, no one handles it. For example, take a car crash along the side of the road.
Typically, when we see a car in a rut or even witness an accident, we just keep on driving, assuming someone else will take care of it. But what if the person was knocked unconscious or experiencing a medical emergency? Because we assume someone else will take care of it, we never even stop to see if help is needed in the first place.
For another example of the diffusion of responsibility, consider dining out. Researchers looked at the amount tipped by nearly 400 groups at a restaurant and found that the larger the group, the less each individual tipped. In this instance, the grouped eaters tended to assume others would carry the weight of tipping, in which case, no one ended tipping that much.
More broadly, then, in situations where people need help, we often assume that others will do the helping, meaning that no one does. So now, let me give you the five steps to help YOU be the hero in the next dire situation:
Notice that a situation has arisen—people are often too “busy” to even notice when someone needs help
- Recognize the situation is an emergency—often, we look to others to see if they think a situation is an emergency; however, even when there aren’t a group of onlookers, the situation can still require immediate attention
- Assume that it is your responsibility to help—again, because of the diffusion of responsibility, we often think that others will resolve a situation when really, everyone is waiting on someone else to act
- Know an appropriate way to help—you can only decide to help if you know how to; fortunately, so long as you have a cell phone to call 9-1-1, you always know at least one way to help
- Decide that you will help—assuming you pass all the above checks, the final step is the most important: deciding to help; however, doing so may require you to consider dangers to yourself or even legal considerations
So, the next time you notice something awry, don’t think someone else will take care of it—you could be the only person able and willing to help. And c’mon, who doesn’t like be the hero?
Psychophilosophy to Ponder: The diffusion of responsibility applies to more than just emergency situations. For example, on group projects, we often assume others will handle the less enjoyable tasks. When it comes to cleaning dishes, we assume our roommates will take care of it. The diffusion of responsibility can apply to any group context, so make sure to keep an eye out for its insidious influence!
Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of personality and social psychology, 8(4), 377-383.
Freeman, S., Walker, M. R., Borden, R., & Latane, B. (1975). Diffusion of responsibility and restaurant tipping: Cheaper by the bunch. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1(4), 584-587.