Diffusion of Responsibility

What is diffusion of responsibility?

Diffusion of responsibility or bystander effect is a phenomenon where the more people who are present, the less responsibility any individual takes for a decision or action. It is normally observed in 2 ways. Firstly someone may witness an incident and fail to take any action as they assume that another witness will do so. They may fear losing face in front of the other witnesses, being superseded by a superior helper, offering unwanted assistance or believing the event is 'not real' or a prank. They may feel obedience to authority and assume that others may be more qualified to help and their intervention would be unneeded.

When a task is placed before a group of people, there's a strong tendency for each individual to assume someone else will take responsibility for it—so no one does (Lickerman, 2010).

Diffusion of responsibility is a psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to take action or feel a sense of responsibility in the presence of a large group of people. Essentially, in a large group of people, people may feel that individual responsibility to intervene is lessened because it is shared by all of the onlookers (Cherry, n/d).

Secondly, bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think it is necessary to intervene. Since others are doing exactly the same, everyone concludes from the inaction of others that no help is needed.

Individuals are simply copying the others’ inaction, so that they believe inaction is the appropriate response (Ames, 2009).

The Bystander Effect
Video embedded from YouTube on 15 August 2012

Relevance to aviation

Could the bystander effect happen in aviation?

In March 2012 the captain of a JetBlue flight from New York to Las Vegas made an announcement 'we're all going down' and then begun running up and down the aisles like a madman and then tried to get back into the cockpit from which he had been locked out. Fortunately, 4 passengers acted and subdued the pilot until the aircraft was safely on the ground; of those 4 one was an off duty prison guard and one a retired policeman.

There were over 140 passengers on the aircraft and the flight attendant made an announcement to 'restrain the pilot', yet only 4 people acted. Did diffusion of responsibility cause the majority to remain in their seats? Why did only 4 react? When interviewed later the retired policeman stated “my training immediately kicked in." He said he believed he (the pilot) was "deranged" when he looked into his eyes because he had "dealt with a lot of emotionally disturbed people during my time on the force" (Marsh, 2012). What would have been the outcome if the prison guard and policeman had not been on-board? Would anyone have reacted?

JetBlue Pilot - mid-flight meltdown
Video embedded from YouTube on 18 August 2012

On 8th January 1989 a Boing 737-400 crashed short of the runway at East Midlands airport impacting on the M1 Motorway. The aircraft had suffered a partial failure of the LEFT engine but indications in the cockpit lead the pilots to believe it was the RIGHT engine that had suffered the failure. The right engine was shut down and the aircraft made an emergency diversion to East Midlands. As the aircraft approached to land, more power was required from the damaged left engine which subsequently failed, resulting in a loss of both engines and the crash short of the runway.

During the flight the pilot made an announcement that the right engine had been shut down as a precaution. Despite several passengers seeing flames and smoke from the left engine no-one spoke up and questioned the pilot. Was this bystander effect in action? If one person had questioned the pilot would others have followed? Could this accident have been prevented if someone had spoken up?

Kegworth 8 January 1989
Video embedded from YouTube on 18 August 2012

Ames, T. B H. (2009)The diffusion of responsibility in social anxiety. Retrieved 11 August 2012, from: http://www.tbhames.com/the-diffusion-of-responsibility-in-social-anxiety

Cherry, K. (n/d) What is diffusion of responsibility? Retrieved 12 August 2012, from: http://psychology.about.com/od/dindex/f/diffusion-of-responsibility.htm.

Lickerman, A. (2010) Happiness in this world. Retrieved 14 August 2012, from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201006/the-diffusion-responsibility

Marsh, J. (2012)JetBlue passengers reacted. Would you? Retrieved 18 August 2012, from: http://edition.cnn.com/2012/03/30/opinion/marsh-jetblue-bystanders/index.html

Youtube. (2009) THE BYSTANDER EFFECT. Retrieved 15 August 2012, from:

Youtube. (2009) Taking Liberties Fatal Error Retrieved 18 August 2012, from:

Youtube. (2009) JetBlue flight diverted after pilot flips out Retrieved 18 August 2012, from:

Want to know more?

The Bystander Effect
Further reading on the bystander effect
Wikipedia: Milgram Experiment
An interesting psychology experiment relating to the diffusion of responsibility

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