Nice post from a student who took PSY 13 a year ago, exploring diffusion of responsibility as it occurs on-line (and here at Tufts). With the (anonymous) student’s permission, I’m re-posting it below. Take a look and let us know your reactions.
Group text messages and Facebook groups provide a very unique forum to observe passive group interactions. Recently, I have been noticing a very interesting trend in the Facebook group for my dorm. Prior to coming to Tufts as freshman, the group was full of posts regarding living situations and quality of life in the hall. The majority of posts had many responses, as all the incoming freshman were very excited about the upcoming year. However, as the year has gone on, posts on the group have generally devolved into people posting about events going on around campus or people asking for help or wishing to borrow things.
In the past week alone, there have been three posts with kids asking to borrow items for short periods of time. One post was about an RCA cable, another for a pair of crutches, and finally one to borrow an iron. Despite our dorm having hundreds of kids in it, not a single person responded to the posts in a helpful manner. Some kids who were friends with the poster commented with a joke or some sarcastic response, but no one offered any help. This situation corresponds to step three in the five steps to helping: assuming responsibility. Almost all 400 kids passed the first step when they read the post, meaning they noticed what was going on. Furthermore, most kids also interpreted the situation as one where someone needed or was requesting help, thus passing step two (even if the situation was not an emergency).
Step three, assuming responsibility, is where things start to get interesting from a social psychology perspective. There are people in the dorm with an RCA cable, crutches, and an iron. Nonetheless, in such a large group setting, no one offered his or hers up. This is because of diffusion of responsibility. In a group of hundreds, people naturally assume that someone else will volunteer to help. However, when everyone approaches the situation in this manner, no one helps.
In my opinion, because this situation occurs with the security and anonymity of the Internet, the normal diffusion of responsibility is exacerbated to an extreme degree. Over the Internet, people have a convenient excuse if they are subsequently confronted about why they didn’t help. It is very easy to claim that you just did not see the post, or perhaps didn’t read it carefully when you saw it. Obviously diffusion of responsibility still occurs in person, but there is slightly more accountability in person as compared to when someone is behind a computer screen.
The final thing to consider with regards to this situation is how they ended up being resolved. In each situation, the person who needed to borrow something ended up simply walking around the hall knocking on doors asking people directly. Partly because this removed the group factor, and partly because this removed the anonymity factor, everyone ended up getting what was needed relatively quickly. In the case of the iron, where dozens of people had them, it would not have made sense why no one volunteered theirs without understanding diffusion of responsibility. With regards to these particular situations, I did not have any of the desired items, and therefore could not help. However, as we were discussing this topic in class, these Facebook posts immediately came to mind, as they are such a blatantly obvious example of diffusion of responsibility.