Diffusion of Responsibility

In an effort to combat issues of diversity in the workplace, schools, government, and various other environments, prevention programs known as Bystander Effect Training are being implemented (Scully & Rowe, 2009, p. 1). The Bystander Effect Training is meant to compensate for the diffusion of responsibility that people feel while in the presence of others, i.e. the bystander effect. The bystander effect is another name for the theory of diffusion of responsibility; they both present that when situations occur where there are multiple people present, each person tends to feel that since there are others, someone else will likely step up and do what is necessary, thus instigating a perceived lessening of the burden on that particular individual, and that person then doesn’t feel as inclined to do anything about the situation at hand (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2005, p. 333). This is where the Bystander Effect Training comes into play; the Bystander Effect Training teaches people to take responsibility in situations such as those, to stand up and do something when appropriate, even when there are others around that could also take action. The Bystander Effect Training teaches people how to rely on themselves, instead of others, to be morally responsible and take action (i.e. speak up for sexual harassment, refute acts of discrimination, report safety concerns, etc.).

Programs like the Bystander Effect Training work by training people to encourage positive behaviors through helping those around them to produce more positive behaviors, while also commending those who follow socially acceptable behaviors and actions. For instance, a manager acknowledging and rewarding an employee for a well delivered presentation on methods to improve workplace sexism issues (putting together a program to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace). Through the employees work towards addressomg sexual harassment and sexual stereotypes in the workplace, they not only improve the workplace atmosphere for others, but they, as well as the commendation of their work, set a shining example of appropriate and morally inspirational behavior for their peers. Thus, one of the Bystander Effect Training’s goals is to encourage people to help others and support other’s good choices.

The other major aspect of Bystander Effect Training is the dissuasion of negative instances of behavior. The Bystander Effect Training encourages people to speak up about those actions or people who do not follow the expectations; i.e. people that make discriminatory or sexist remarks or actions, display unsafe or illegal behavior, and/or act in an unprofessional or offensive manner (Scully & Rowe, 2009, p. 2). For example, in a situation where one coworker makes a sexist comment to another coworker, while the third-person coworker, bystander, voices that the comment is inappropriate and continues to speak to the insulted coworker in a professional manner; i.e. speaking up for what is right and demonstrating proper behavior.

As an example, here are two Bystander Effect Training Programs currently in place in academia, Arizona’s Stepup and Indiana’s Bystander Intervention. Stepup was put together by the University of Arizona in an effort to improve personal responsibility for moral action and fortitude for their students, athletics, violence prevention centers, residence halls and Greek life (University of Arizona, 2010, p. 1). Arizona’s Stepup breaks down the teaching process into a five step decision making process, while also training individuals in helping skills, warning signs, what to do and resources that can help them get it done. Stepup also utilizes what they term an S.E.E. model; safe, early, effective (p. 1).

Then there is Indiana’s Campus program. Indiana utilized Bystander Prevention as part of their Sexual Assault Primary Prevention Project, through which students are taught how to increase awareness and identify warning signs of sexual assault. The campus’s Bystander Intervention also teaches subjects how to step in and make a difference in a sexual assault situation; both directly and indirectly. (Purdue University, 2014, p. 1)

Overall, in an effort to influence change in diversity issues, all of these programs utilize the same methods behind the Bystander Effect Training, teaching individuals to standup for what is right and motivate others to do the same, not to let or assume others will shoulder the responsibility for them.


Purdue University (2014). Indiana Campus Sexual Assault Primary Prevention Project. Retrieved February 17, 2014, from http://www.purdue.edu/incsapp/bystanderintervention/index.shtml

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2005). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Termin, L. M., Kohs , S. C., Chamberlain, M. B., Anderson, M., & Henry, B. (2012). The Vocabulary Test as a Measure of Intelligence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 9(8), 452-456.

University of Arizona (2010). Step UP! A Prosocial Behavior / Bystander Intervention Program for Students. Retrieved February 17, 2014, from http://www.stepupprogram.org/



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    Diffusion of Responsibility | Applied Social Psychology (ASP)

  2. Gretchen M Baker

    Have you ever walked nonchalantly down a busy street, minding your own business when you witness with your very own eyes something that just doesn’t settle with you, like a boyfriend grabbing his girlfriend by the arm, twisting it and acting like nothing is wrong? Or have you ever been at work and heard a co-worker say a racist joke which starts with “I am not racist, but listen to this”? If you are like most of us, you have been in a situation which was uncomfortable and you knew it wasn’t right and yet you didn’t speak up or help? Well, you aren’t the only one that has ever done that. These types of situations occur all the time and the bystander effect is why we don’t want to “get in the middle of something” even though we should intervene. Bystander effect is when individuals are least likely to come to the aid of others when there are bystanders present (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012). The theory of the diffusion of responsibility runs hand-n-hand with the bystander effect in that when circumstances occur and there are many individuals nearby, then everyone believes that somebody else will come to the aid and therefore doesn’t feel the burden for what could occur.
    The first well known example of the bystander effect occurred on March 13, 1964. Kitty Genovese was heading home in Queens New York around 3 a.m. when she was brutally stabbed by a murderer who was a serial rapist. While she screamed for assistance for at least 30 minutes, around 38 other people who either heard her cries for help or witnessed the incidence stood by and did nothing. Astonishingly enough, the killer even came back ten minutes later to finally kill her and no one came to her aid. John Darley and Bibb Latané are responsible for researching in a lab the bystander effect after this brutal murder of Kitty Genovese occurred in 1964 ( Darley & Latané, 1968 ). One study occurred when students were gathered in a room and smoke continually filled a room so much so, that students were coughing and their vision was impaired and they still didn’t report the incidence.
    Bystander Effect Training should be implemented in regards to education as an adolescent. Many jobs have an “open door policy” where an individual can feel safe to call a number privately or speak to a manager about issues that arise such as inappropriate touching or communication, discrimination or if an employee witnesses an inappropriate situation. An example occurred when a male employee used to inappropriately touch other female employees when he would get near them. He would touch their arm or on their back and it made one young girl feel uncomfortable so she called the 1-800 hotlines for the employee open-door policy to voice her concerns. The managers then had a conference with the male employee and told him to keep his hands to himself and to attend a program on sexual harassment otherwise he was no longer employed.
    What are some of the explanations as to why people weren’t saying anything or acting upon issues when individuals witnessed behaviors that were deemed unacceptable? One of the most important reasons was that workers felt that there would be a loss of relationships and negative consequences could occur (Bystander, 2012). Another reason could occur when other individuals are near; it lowers how much responsibility a bystander feels because they think that “someone else” will intervene
    (Schneider, et al, 2012).
    How is the social learning theory used as intervention in responsibility? It is important in providing instances where role models are shown encouraging ways to solve a situation. One very encouraging example occurred in 1998 by Black and Krishnakumar where low-income and young mothers in urban areas are helped to deal with both health issues and raising families by showing presentations of positive results from individuals who have endured the same hardships and yet still became successful (Schneider et al., 2012).
    Many organizations are also participating in bystander training. The United States Department of the Army is participating in regards to sexual assault (Bystander, 2012). In Quebec, Canada, it is actually obligatory to “come to the aid of anyone whose life is in peril, either personally or calling for aid, unless it involves danger to himself or a third person, or he as another valid reason.” In other words, it is illegal to not help in any way possible. The Brazilian Penal Code also says that it’s an actual crime if a person doesn’t help. Other campaigns which raise awareness publicly includes the “Red Flag Campaign” which exists on college campuses and supports eyewitness to “say something” where they witness things such as violence in dating, sexual assault or those who are obsessively annoying. The “Green Dot” bystander intervention program is available in communities and on college campuses and wide-ranging training is instituted.
    What would happen if Bystander training wasn’t readily available or if everyone decided to be only a bystander and never speak up or react if someone is hurt or in danger? Life would become chaotic because criminals would know that they could do whatever they wanted and get away with it and the safety of others would always be in question. The diffusion of responsibility may lessen with an individual when they believe that someone else will intervene so therefore there is no need for them to take the initiative. We the people need to continually strive to work together to make our self and our community better!

    Bystander Apathy. (2012). The Powers that Beat.
    Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). “Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8: 377–383.
    Schneider, F.W., Gruman, J.A., & Coutts, L.A. (2005). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

  3. Sadaka Maisah Archie

    The Bystander Effect would be a great problem implemented in the workplace and school environment, but I believe there are implications that would need to be addressed. Furthermore, I believe many issues are personal issues within the person. In today’s society, I feel many people have the “it’s not my business” stance on many issues. For example, a show on television stage people in how they would handle social situation. One story was a woman disciplining her child in public and others would be racially and religiously driven. Many times I heard the people witnessing certain situation states “it’s not my business.” I believe individuals should be educated on the advancement of society as a whole. These “simple” issues transgress society, not progress. It’s tends to be difficult to come together and break hierarchy. As Forber-Pratt, Aragon, and Espelage (2014) examined gangs, people generally fear gangs and simply would not want to put their life in danger. Such group would be extremely difficult diffuse. I necessarily do not feel the Bystander Effect could fully be implemented in the workforce. Individuals may have fears of losing their job or being retaliated again in some way. Kitty Genovese is a prime example the Bystander Effect. It’s such a tragic story and I believe this is why it’s important to educate societies about standing up and acting against wrongful behaviors. Therefore, I believe it would be difficult to implement the Bystander Effect, but feel everyone should be educated about the Bystander Effect and how it can save one or many lives.

  4. The diffusion of responsibility has a large role in applied social psychology as both diffusion of responsibility and social hierarchies may have a negative effect on intergroup relations. Swim and Hyers (1999) uncovered that women, when alone, are more likely to directly confront sexist remarks from male colleagues however, when accompanied with another women nothing is said. This poses a serious issue as individuals who feel the responsibility does not fall on them will potentially allow sexist, racist or other discriminatory acts to take place without being stopped. Schneider, Gruman and Coutts (2012) admit that while blatant sexism and racism has decreased, subtle forms of sexism and racism can still be seen in daily life. For instance, an individual’s sex is often socially categorized where men are considered to have higher social value than women (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012). This automatic social categorization can be explained by the social dominance theory which refers to the social hierarchies put in place by society and these hierarchies can become dangerous when abused (Pennsylvania State University, 2014; Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012). Social dominance theory can account for the gender hierarchy seen in the study of Swim and Hyers (1999) in which men were the individuals who made the sexist comments and men, according to social dominance theory, have more power and social value (Pennsylvania State University, 2014; Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012).

    This is critically important for applied social psychologists as it presents a problem within society that must be challenged. Interventions involving combating the diffusion of responsibility and social dominance serve as a positive step in the right direction. The issue is identified as a diffusion of responsibility when others of a similar group are present and confronted with bias or unequal treatment based on social categorizations from an individual with higher social value. Therefore, an intervention such as the Bystander Effect training is effective as it teaches individuals to accept personal responsibility in any situation and take necessary action in the face of diversity. The Bystander Effect training program not only attempts to overcome the issue of diffusion of responsibility but also the status quo of the hierarchies as put there by society. If individuals are trained to look beyond what group they fall into or what status society has placed the perpetrator then society will be unable to maintain the hierarchies (Pennsylvania State University, 2014; Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012).

    Social hierarchy and a diffusion of responsibility is becoming more apparent within school systems. Forber-Pratt, Aragon and Espelage (2014) reviewed how gangs rank superior as a social hierarchy in middle schools and despite bullying or victimization, students feel a diffusion of responsibility. This occurs primarily out of fear because students feel gangs have more power and no individual student is going to speak out against the bullying when they merely exist as a single student in a group of students (Forber-Pratt, Aragon, & Espelage, 2014). Rivers (2012) came to the same findings after evaluating bullying and the role of the bystander. Rivers (2012) uncovered that the school grounds maintain their own hierarchy system and those who are bullied typically have low social value. Perhaps it would be beneficial to apply the Bystander Effect training program within schools to teach children to tear down the hierarchies that promote social dominance and take personal responsibility to speak out in situations of bullying.

    Forber-Pratt, A., Aragon, S., & Espelage, D. (2014). The influence of gang presence on victimization in one middle school environment. Psychology of Violence, 4(1), 8-20. doi:10.1037/a0031835.

    Pennsylvania State University. (2014). Intergroup Relations. [Online Lecture]. Retrieved from http://cms.psu.edu.

    Rivers, I. (2012). Morbidity among bystanders of bullying behavior at school: Concepts, concerns, and clinical/research issues. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 24(1), 11-16. doi:10.1515/ijamh.2012.003.

    Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.) (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

    Swim, J. & Hyers, L. (1999). Excuse me-what did you jut say?! Women’s public and private responses to sexist remarks. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 68-88. doi:10.1006/jesp.1998.1370.

  5. Carolyn Ann Moscoso

    Without a program that would train people about prosocial behavior and the Bystander Effect there would many instances of negative behavior that can lead to devastating consequences. Not only was the Kitty Genovese murder that Gretchen mentioned a horrible result of a bystander effect but in 1995 in Fredericksburg, VA a convenience store clerk was beaten in front of six people who simply stood by and watched. In addition after the assailant ran off leaving the clerk bloody and cowering in a corner the six people who witnessed this which were three men and three women flee the store and do not call authorities. (Hsu, 1995) One hypothesis that has been proposed is the urban overload hypothesis which states that people that live in cities are steadily battered with stimulation that the stress of urban live makes them keep to themselves. This would lead one to believe that if you perhaps lived in a more rural setting with less stress and stimulation you would be more inclined to help. While this could be proposed in the Kitty Genovese case due to New York City’s dense population what happened in Fredericksburg where the population is only around 900,000 residents? (Hsu, 1995)

    There are many factors that can contribute to the reasons why people will or will not help that is why it is important for programs to address this in the workplace as well as outside work.

    Hsu, S. S. (1995). Fredericksburg searches for its soul after clerk is beaten as 6 watch. Washington Post, pp. A1, A13

  6. I think that the Bystander Effect Training should be instituted in every job and I even think that it should be part of the school curriculum. Things that adolescents are taught at a young age will hopefully carry on well into adulthood and will allow them to serve as an example to others to not only be present, but to react and not expect that others will “take care” of an issue. What I like to call being “pro-active” is relatively the same thing. I remember in sociology class watching a video where there was a man who had lost his job and decided to go on a shooting rampage. There were many bystanders, including the man who was closely video-taping it, but there was only one man who took the initiative and subdued the gunman. Now, obviously, this was an extreme circumstance and someone having a gun is definitely scary, but out of all the bystanders who figured that “someone else “ would take care of it, only one man by himself did anything. I am sure many of you remember the Kitty Genovese story about the young woman who was screaming for her life and people heard her, but just figured that someone else would call the police and come to her aid and unfortunately, no one did. This was a perfect example of the bystander effect theory because the more people who were considered bystanders, the least likely it became for someone to help because everyone felt that someone else would intervene ( Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012 ).
    I think the Bystander Effect Training in job settings is a must! People feel like they can say whatever they want, even if it’s inappropriate because they assume no one is going to say something. I can honestly say that I have been guilty of this as well because I will hear someone make a “funny joke” about my ethnicity and I won’t say anything even though it’s inappropriate and hurtful. Deep down I know I should speak up for myself, but I’m just not like that. However, if perhaps I was taught early to speak up and stand up for me, perhaps people wouldn’t feel like they could say whatever they wanted without consequences. Unfortunately, I see ambivalent racism quite a bit. A friend of mine had just moved to a new city and she was talking about how many black children were in her daughter’s class. She of course said, “I am not racist, but…” in which she knows I have two black children, but she feels it isn’t racist that’s she pointing out kids just because they are black. She doesn’t mean to be cruel, but I feel it’s unfair to judge someone for what they look like.
    I have two children who are both African-American and will be faced with these challenges as well and I am very glad that there is training programs available in universities for moral actions, sexual assaults, and changes in diversity issues. What if one day, my daughter is walking in the mall by herself and someone pushes her and grabs her purse. Let’s say almost everyone is white, will someone go to her aid? Will the social identity theory come into play and will no one do anything because she isn’t in their social group of ethnicity ( Schneider, et al, 2012) ? Also, what if I put them into a private school where it is predominately white? Will she be invited to other children’s houses that are in a predominately white neighborhood? Will someone ask her to dance at a school dance even though she doesn’t resemble them? These are all areas of conflict which could arise when bystander training isn’t instituted in school There has been a lot of change since I was in school in that we really didn’t “talk about issues” as much as we do know and that in itself incites change. I feel like we have a long way to go, but bringing awareness is definitely the first step!! In closing, I found this wonderful day the Girl scouts have called “Different Shoe Day” where they each wear two different shoes and pledge with an agreement to live the following way:
    To those of you who are different than me I promise to learn about you, to understand you, to befriend you, to value you and your differences, and to appreciate that our similarities are larger than our differences!

    Schneider, F.W., Gruman, J.A., & Coutts, L.A. (2005). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

  7. Katherine M Simmons

    The bystander effect is a serious and rather frightening phenomenon that certainly needs to be addressed on a social level – especially in today’s self-isolating and all too often indifferent work and school environments. A similar example to the programs you mention that I have seen in my personal life are sexual harassment and suicide prevention programs in the military. While I am a civilian, my husband is an officer and I am aware that the attendance and participation in such programs are required on a regular basis. My husband’s soldiers (as well as fellow officers) often complain about having to attend these seminars, and while awareness alone cannot single-handedly prevent harassment or counteract the bystander effect and other related negative behaviors, I am confident that these programs have produced much more positive social change than many people give them credit for.

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