An Application of the Diffusion of Responsibility

A few days ago, I had a day off from work so when I woke up I decided it would be the perfect time to go to the gym. However, I woke up during rush hour. Unfortunately, I somehow did not realize that until it was way too late. Five minutes into my voyage, I turn onto a street with a ton of traffic. Thinking that there could have been a traffic accident (due to the availability heuristic!), I thought that the traffic would be very temporary and I would arrive at the gym quickly.

That turned out not to be true, and I learned that as soon as I opened Google Maps on my phone and saw the entire route highlighted in the disastrous red colour.

At a a T-intersection with two way traffic, the car ahead of me needed to tun left, while I would continue going straight. At this point, I thought that the cars on the other side of the street would easily let the car in front of me pass since they were all going at such a slow speed that no car crashes or injuries would result from a car stopping to clear up a path.

However, I sat in the car for around five minutes before a car from the opposite direction stopped to let the car in front of me turn left and so I could continue my journey to the gym. I sat there for five minutes just staring at the stagnant car, imagining everything about the driver of the Lexus SUV.

Although this was not an emergency where someone’s life might have been at stake, all the other drivers from the opposite lane thought only about themselves and did not intervene to help the car turn onto the side street.

I am going to loosely use the “Bystander Intervention Decision Tree” from the textbook to analyze this event, with a somewhat tweaked version to better fit this scenario.

The first step again would be to notice the event. I believe that almost everyone driving on the road would have noticed the car trying to turn left, since drivers must keep a wide view of the road at all times to know what is exactly going on. From both my personal experience and observational experience, however, I hypothesize that being in a car serves as a sort of shielding effect from everything on the road, similar to that of urban overload, which could cause some drivers to not immediately notice that a car wants to make a turn.

Next, the original step two was to “interpret the event as an emergency.” However, since this is not a critical situation, my next (and final) step would be to assume responsibility/take action. In (what seemed to be) an endless string of cars, it would be very easy for a driver to assume that the driver behind them would stop to let the Lexus turn. However, each driver, angered by the traffic chose to focus on themselves and let themselves get a tiny bit closer to where they needed to be. Coupled with the time crunch associated with every morning traffic rush, any further distance travelled would temporarily satiate the drivers’ plea to get to work on time.

Ultimately, social responsibility doesn’t only fall to individuals during times of stress or emergency, and social psychology really helps to provide awareness for these more automated decisions people take in mundane situations.

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