Diffusion of Responsibility Through Facebook


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.

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15 Responses to Diffusion of Responsibility Through Facebook

  1. Profile photo of bren01 bren01 says:

    I think that this is a really good example of the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility. While situations such as these definitely happen in person as well, it is magnified when these interactions are taking place through a screen rather than face-to-face. Personally, I can say that I have definitely experienced something similar in group chats. In these situations, even if I do have the item that someone is requesting, I automatically assume that someone else must have it as well- which relieves the pressure off of myself. However, if the individual had asked me in person, I wouldn’t have hesitated to offer them the item. There is a certain quality about online interactions that can often dehumanize the other people we are interacting with, making it even easier to succumb to the bystander effect.

    • I very much agree with your statement. Additionally, I think technology amplifies the problem as we are able to dismiss notifications. If we see something that we do not want to interact with in a group chat notification, it can be removed from sight and mind with the swipe of a button. The person to whom we talk is dehumanized into an electronic bubble on a phone.

      Furthermore, the impact of time is something that technology can avoid while being essential to real life interactions. For example, in the instances of talking to a friend and texting a friend, texting is is not as spontaneous as talking, as the sender of the text has to take time and draft out the text and in that time, the message can be erased and changed. This allows for much more thought when considering a decision. Playing devil’s advocate, maybe in the time that the recipient of the request has drafted a message, he or she has decided against loaning the object for a personal reason or some other reason, and the least awkward way in a group chat is to not respond.

      On the other hand, talking is a more spontaneous form of communication, as when you start communicating a thought, it is very difficult to retract it without bringing up any awkwardness. We cannot fully mentally map out all the potential moral and physical benefits and consequences. Therefore, some people who may have not been willing to loan an object over an online platform would feel compelled to do so in real life by starting the conversation with a yes.

  2. I believe this student portrays the phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility, as well as the bystander effect in a very interesting and applicable manner. I have not only witnessed other students demonstrate similar interactions, but have also ignored Facebook posts asking for various items (although I am not proud of it). This student does a thorough job of explaining how someone might make the decision to ignore a peer’s Facebook posts, and how in-person interactions have very different consequences.
    Although there are countless benefits of using the Internet as means of communicating and interacting with others (such as the possibility of this online class), engaging with people through screens is simply not the same as face-to-face interaction, for many reasons. Unfortunately, another common consequence of digital interaction is cyber-bullying. It is much easier to direct hurtful thoughts, at someone from behind a screen, where you are protected by your anonymity.

    • I agree with your observation, and it is made quite apparent also on youtube comment threads. There, people are so willing to be hateful and downright mean to each other, because they have the ability to hide behind a screen name. Also, thinking about how this relates to today’s world…revenge porn! For some reason, people (although it is almost always men) feel the right to post nude pictures of a woman they were previously involved with, if they can do so through a screen. It makes me so frustrated to see how inhumane people treat each other, especially when it comes to posting sensitive images which were shared under the impression of “for your eyes only”. Thankfully california is one of the states out to make sure those who do violate these terms pay–either by time in jail or by actually being fined. Maybe its part of the fact that humans feel no sense of responsibility behind a screen…whatever it is, it happens way more often than should be acceptable in today’s world.

  3. Michael Rogalski says:

    While I do not have an RCA cable or an iron, I am rather interested in the case of the crutches and the way I might perceive the person in need of them. We learned in lecture that there are several factors that influence who we help, and one of them was whether someone is similar to us. My focus in this case would be at step five of helping, as I would be reluctant to give away a pair of crutches to just anyone. Having endured two leg surgeries since coming to college, I feel strongly empathetic towards others who incur serious leg injuries. According to the empathy-altruism hypothesis, I would likely decide to help the person altruistically if they had an injury like mine because I can relate to their struggle. However, if they were not injured and wanted to borrow crutches for another purpose (like a film project), then I would probably not help because I would not want to give away a perfectly good (and expensive) pair of crutches in the name of art. This thought also corroborates the empathy-altruism hypothesis because without the ability to empathize, I would decide not to help because the costs seem to outweigh the benefits.

    • Ki Jung Lee says:

      I agree about how empathy plays a great role in helping others. I am an immigrant and underwent language difficulties. Therefore, I am more empathetically toward those with language difficulties and willing to help them if I could. When I travel to other countries, I help tourists from Korea when they are struggling to communicate in English. I sort of jump to step 3 and assume that it is my kind of responsibility. However, when a tourist speaks a language other than Korean, sometimes I would not even recognize that a person and would not be able to register as an emergency situation. Therefore, displaying prosocial behavior involves both my ability to speak specific languages and being empathetic in specific circumstance. Knowing that I do not understand other languages, it would take away my time, and I would not be helpful, costs outweigh benefits for me to invest my time to offer a help.

  4. I think that in the era of technology, it is important to differentiate connections made through social media networks and connections made in real life. Although social networks greater connect people into a community, these greater connections are not typically very strong, as the amount of effort to preserve these connections is far less than in-person connections. For example, on FaceBook, you are able to learn about a friend’s vacation through his or her FaceBook vacation photos, without even having a conversation. Social media creates more passive or one-sided interactions between people. For example, it takes a lot less effort to mass send a message to a group chat or into a FaceBook group. Instead of going around and asking everyone for something, a generic message can be copied and pasted in different groups or chats.

    As everyone has experienced asking for help online and in person, most if not all people have probably come to realize that asking for help in person is more effective in resolving a situation, and thus, choosing an online platform is mainly for the ease and simplicity.

    However, playing devil’s advocate, for people who do not like hearing “no,” an online platform could be a more comfortable place to post, where they feel that if someone is not willing to share or loan an item, then they will not respond. Perhaps, psychologically, it is easier on the sender to not receive a response online versus a “no” in real life.

    • Profile photo of Aubrey  Tan Aubrey Tan says:

      I think you bring up a valid point playing devils advocate. While the majority of people use social media media for the simplicity aspect, there may be other underlying reasons that are overlooked. I do agree with you about having to deal with the face-to-face interaction in real life can be quite nerve racking especially asking another person for a favor. Additionally, some people might want think it is more considerate to ask via group post or another online platform since it lessens the obligation the receiving end feels when asked for a favor.

      • I agree. I also think that, besides emotional shelters, the internet also provides potentially logistical / more practical benefits to help seekers. While the massiveness of Internet communities, according to the bystander effect theory, would likely inhibit helping behaviors, it enlarges the possibility of the help seekers who are in some rare needs finding a qualified helper, whom, in Darley and Batson’s words, successfully pass the 4th step (decide how to act) of the 5-step helping tree.

        For example, Internet platforms like Quora allow students to ask for, and very often receive, urgent help regarding academic needs when there is no proper resource available in their physical surrounding. (say that a physics student who has is at home with two surgeon parents) So massiveness of internet communities is able to not only enlarge the possibility of the help seekers finding the proper help, which would likely be unavailable had it been sought among the seekers’ immediate physical (hence smaller) community, but also potentially increase the efficiency of the help-finding process—which would be critical for those in dire need of certain information.

  5. This is definitely an interesting example of the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility, where the size of the group clearly affects the amount of responses to requests for help within the group. Thinking about it now, all of the smaller facebook groups that I am a part of usually have a much greater response rate for small requests for help. I wonder if this relates to the norm of reciprocity; in a group where you personally know everyone, and know that people are more likely to help, you may be more likely to contribute as well knowing that someone else will return the favor. In a larger group, you might not be as likely to contribute because you aren’t expecting help in return, in addition to the bystander effects and diffusion of responsibility as mentioned above. I also wonder if someone who had posted in the group and actually did receive help would be more likely to help another poster in the future, due to that ingrained sense of gratitude (or conversely, if gratitude only applies strictly to individuals that helped us, as opposed to larger groups that may have helped us via one member of said group). Finally, I wonder if people would be more likely to help people who are posting about problems they themselves have faced, as this would be more likely to invoke a sense of empathy.

    • zchai01 says:

      I think you have raised a very interesting and researchable question: is there a threshold to the concept of a group in terms of the Bystander Effect? In other words, at what size is the group, whether a real one or an imagined one, large enough to be showing the Bystander Effect?
      I have no scientific data to illustrate this question, but in my personal experience, a group as small as three could be large enough for the people involved to become indifferent “bystanders,” who are more likely to offer help if approached on an individual level. I think it would be fascinating if we can quantify the “someone” in the pluralistic ignorance effect and diffusion of responsibility effect, i.e. how do people’s behavior change when the perceived size of the group changes?

  6. Profile photo of bpastr01 bpastr01 says:

    This is a super interesting example, and I think the addition of a screen in between the person seeking help and those who could potentially give help does diffuse responsibility greatly, for many reasons. First, you could easily hide the message by turning off your phone, or say you didn’t see it. What I think is more interesting, though, is the idea of empathy as related to altruism. Empathy is a very personal emotion, and it might be harder to engage someone’s empathy through a short message to a group chat. The screen takes away the human quality, and perhaps one reason why people might be willing to help. I feel like if I saw someone struggling without crutches, I’d be more likely to feel like they needed help than if they messaged a group with several hundred people. The screen takes away the more personal connection there. This also brings to mind similar situations that occur through a screen such as cyber-bullying and other hateful comments that people post online. Perhaps it is easier to say or do horrible things when you aren’t looking right at someone’s face, and understanding how they react. It must be easier to go along with the crowd in this context, as well, and would make helping even less likely. One might be scared of negative social consequences (being bullied themselves or ostracized from the group), or simply give in to the diffuse responsibility on the internet.

    • Profile photo of jstone08 jstone08 says:

      I find your comment very interesting and thought-provoking. In fact, I just had an hour discussion with my older sister about why people change their behavior when in a group setting. I think what you said about the lack of a face to face connection to convey the human component of needing help was spot on. Upon my initial reaction and analysis of the situation, I wondered about how conscious of an effort people were making to ignore the requests. Looking back on my own experiences with large Facebook groups for my dorm, I recall a similar feeling of (1) perusing Facebook, (2) seeing that a request type post was made, (3) then proceeding to assume someone else would be able to help them and ignoring the post entirely. After further introspection and reading, I don’t think that I, or anyone else, was ignoring them maliciously. However, I do not know if I find comfort in the fact that this diffusion of responsibility is the default setting for how humans interact in group settings in times of need.

  7. swhite13 says:

    Although I agree with much of the content within the anonymous student’s post, I think he or she is overlooking a couple aspects of the unwritten guide to online etiquette. In a group or group chat consisting of tens, sometimes hundreds of people that may not even know one another, a bombardment of constant notifications can be aggravating.

    In my experience, after an individual creates a post asking for help or is selling an item, and another individual is willing to help or buy what he or she is selling, the two will take the conversation to a more private forum. This not only is more convenient for the two individuals involved, but it saves all the others in the group chat the time and effort of checking a notification that does not pertain to anyone but the two people involved in the conversation.

  8. When someone asks for something in a group chat or Facebook group and I have what is needed to help, I usually do not respond publicly. Instead, I reach out to them separately, which makes that dialogue more effective and helps me/us avoid unnecessary commentary. In that case, I guess I’m still a subject of diffusion of responsibility but I’m also the person who everyone assumes is going to do it anyway.

    More so, I’m just as likely to lend my help despite the crowd in these groups, I’m just less likely to tell share that information.

    I’m also using the bystander effect or diffusion of responsibility to my advantage. If I can assume these theories hold true, then I won’t have to worry about multiple people offering the same ‘it’ or thing, which would be the prime advantage of publicly offering my help. I believe “the normal diffusion of responsibility is exacerbated to an extreme degree” but I ultimately find that things are handled more conveniently and frequently with these social media platforms despite these social phenomenon.

    Does my secrecy–to an extent–make me distinguishable from diffusion of responsibility? Or am I still a product of the social influence in these groups?

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