Diffusion of responsibility  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e



Diffusion of responsibility is a social phenomenon which tends to occur in groups of people above a certain critical size when responsibility is not explicitly assigned.

Diffusion of responsibility can manifest itself:

  • in a group of peers who, through action or inaction, allow events to occur which they would never allow if alone (action is typically referred to as groupthink; inaction is typically referred to as the bystander effect) or
  • in hierarchical organizations as when, for example, underlings claim that they were following orders and supervisors claim that they were just issuing directives and not doing anything per se.

This mindset can be seen in the phrase "No one raindrop thinks it caused the flood".


  • Kitty Genovese, a New York woman, was stabbed to death near her house. The New York Times reported "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police," blaming diffusion of responsibility; later details contradicted the initial report.
  • In a firing squad, one of the shooters may be randomly issued a weapon containing a blank cartridge rather than one with a bullet. This allows each of the members of the firing squad to believe that he did not fire a fatal shot.
  • In some electric chairs there are many switches, only one of which is connected. The executioners may then choose to believe that they pulled a non-functional switch.
  • This phenomenon also applies to much more mundane circumstances, such as cleaning and maintenance of shared space/items or unassigned work in large organizations getting neglected.

Legal uses

The latter definition of diffusion of responsibility was used as a legal defense (unsuccessfully) by many of the Nazis being tried at Nuremberg (see Good Germans). It has been used with varying degrees of success in other situations.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Diffusion of responsibility" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools