Kitty Diffusion Responsibility Assignment

Once while I was jogging along Lake Michigan, I came upon a large crowd surrounding a middle-aged man lying supine on the ground. I stopped to assess the scene and saw the man wasn't moving—at all. Two people were bending over him and trying to shake him awake.

"What happened?" I asked.

"He fell," someone said, a woman.

"Did anyone see it?"

She nodded. "He was walking along and maybe he tripped or something—I couldn't tell—but then he just...crumpled."

I identified myself as a doctor, pushed my way through the crowd, and checked to see if he was breathing. He wasn't. Did he have a pulse? He didn't.

"Has anyone called 9-1-1?" I asked.

No one answered.


This wasn't an evil crowd that was glad someone had collapsed. It was a large crowd, of strangers, many of whom had undoubtedly seen him collapse besides the woman to whom I'd spoken. They were all concerned, I'm sure—and at least two among them hadn't entirely surrendered to the shock of seeing someone fall unconscious. But no one, it seemed, had done the single most critical thing, the thing that literally meant the difference between life and death for him: called 9-1-1.

In my view, the likely explanation relates to a phenomenon I call the diffusion of responsibility. Simply put, 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.

Malcolm Gladwell famously put forth his notion of this as an explanation for why not one of Kitty Genovese's neighbors who presumably heard her scream intervened or even called the police while she was being murdered in the courtyard of her building in New York. Though a subsequent uncovering of facts suggests the original story of 38 people literally watching her die through their windows while doing nothing represented a significant distortion of what actually happened, the truth that one or two of her neighbors heard her screams yet managed to explain them away as something less ominous than they were is likely not.

That kind of narrative rationalization—that is, a story we tell ourselves that relieves us of responsibility to act—is also what underlies the diffusion of responsibility. Knowing that others heard the same scream, or received the same email request, or came upon a man down powerfully tempts us to assume someone else has taken responsibility for doing what needs to be done.

Many reasons for our falling prey to this assumption exist. We're all busy with our own lives and don't want to get involved. We may not believe we're the best person to assume responsibility. We may not care about the issue involved. We may be lazy. After all, no four words in the English language are ever easier to say than: it's not my problem.


You can choose to live your life that way, dividing obstacles that come your way into yours and theirs, ignoring the principle of dependent origination, which essentially states that we're all in this together and whether we realize it or not all rise and fall as such. Certainly when help could be requested but isn't or when it's offered and refused, the problem isn't yours to solve—but to not care whether it's solved, to turn your back on someone else's plight in your heart—well, the more you practice that, the easier it becomes to tell yourself someone else will take care of things you should be instead. And if the world becomes populated with enough people who think that way, that someone else will do it (whatever "it" is), we'll only be seeing more disasters like the BP oil spill, and debacles like the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide will repeat themselves. Just remembering these tragedies isn't enough.

Or, you can live with the consistent assumption that you're here to help others in whatever way you can, stepping up constantly to whatever plate life thrusts before you without being asked. It only takes is practice. People who think this way don't ask, "Who will do it?" They just assume if a problem finds them it's theirs to help solve.


Knowing the principle of diffusion of responsibility holds sway in the hearts of many may explain the often frustrating inaction with which we find ourselves faced on an almost daily basis, but it also points the way to changing it. The key is getting others to feel personally responsible for helping to solve problems they may not consider their own. Truly great companies know this, which is why they put incentives in place to motivate their employees to provide great customer service. If you've ever had the fortune to encounter a service provider who works in a system that provides such incentives you know just how refreshing and wonderful people are who take responsibility for helping others solve problems.

How can you make someone care about an outcome as much as you do? It's not easy, but the following may get you thinking about it creatively:

  1. By displaying leadership. Inspiring others generates internalmotivation—a far more effective means than external motivation for getting others to care.
  2. By making it seem personal. Find a way to give others a stake in the outcome, whether financial, emotional, moral, or otherwise. Figure out why someone else should care and explain it to them. Don't make the common mistake of presuming that if something is important to you it's important to others. This, by the way, is something Congress would do well to think about. Rather than set up watchdogs to motivate industries externally, the systems they set up would be far more effective if they were constructed with incentives that motivated desired behaviors (increased attention to safety, proper banking practices, etc.) internally. The country is too big to count on watchdogs catching everyone's mistakes/negligent behavior. We need systems where people are incentivized to catch themselves.
  3. Target individuals rather than groups. Don't allow the psychology of the diffusion of responsibility a chance to take hold in the first place. Don't request help from groups; request it from individuals. This applies to every form of communication but especially, I think, to email where the impulse to include more than one person in the "To:" field is strong.

I was thinking specifically of this last point when I found myself confronted with the unconscious man lying along the running path on the shores of Lake Michigan. After assessing his condition myself, I looked up directly at the woman who'd answered my questions initially and said, "Call 9-1-1. He isn't breathing." By asking only her I made only her and no one else personally responsible. I administered CPR until the paramedics arrived, about five minutes later. They only had to shock him twice before they got a pulse back. And then he did the most amazing thing, something I'd never seen happen as fast in all my years of watching people's hearts stop and be restarted in hospitals: he opened his eyes.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Introduction to Who were Latane and Darley

If you witnessed an emergency, you would certainly help those in need, right? Even if you didn’t directly address the problem, if someone were in desperate need of help, you would definitely call the police or an ambulance at the very least, correct? Well, social psychology doesn’t think so. Based on Latane and Darley’s experiments on the bystander effect, your likelihood of helping a person in an emergency is highly dependent on the number of people around you at that moment. The bystander effect is an important social behavior from which we can learn a lot for periods of crisis, and it helps us understand human behavior for groups of people. Therefore, it is important to understand the bystander effect, its causes and possible counteractions for the Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology exam.

Would You Help Kitty Genovese?

New York, March 13, 1964. A woman named Catherine Susan Genovese, commonly known as Kitty Genovese, is stabbed, robbed, sexually assaulted and murdered on the street by a man named Winston Moseley. The tragedy lasted for approximately thirty minutes, during which Kitty Genovese screamed for help. The lights on the nearby apartments went on and off, neighbors heard her screaming, watched from the windows and not one of the thirty-eight witnesses called the police.

If this were a scene from a thriller book, it would sound non-realistic. The editor of the book would probably look straight at the author and protest, “You can’t put a bunch of witnesses on a thirty-minute crime and have none of them lift a finger to help! No reader would believe this!”

This is why the murder of Kitty Genovese shocked the population in 1964. We like to think we are mostly good, ethical and altruistic individuals who would never refuse to help someone in an emergency. At the time, professors and preachers tried to explain this apparently horrifying indifference and lack of intervention with reasons such as “moral decay,” “alienation” and “dehumanization produced by the urban environment.” Social psychology researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley, however, had another hypothesis.

Their hypothesis was that when we are in the presence of other people, we are less likely to intervene in an emergency. Why? What happens? What’s so different between being alone and being in a group when a problem occurs? This is what Latane and Darley explored in their experiments on bystander effect, a critical discovery in the field of social psychology.

The Experiments

In 1968, Latane and Darley created a situation similar to that of Kitty Genovese’s (but without violence)to understand what social forces were acting on the day of the crime.

In the first experiment, Latane and Darley recruited college students to participate in what seemed to be an innocent talk with other college students. Each participant was given headphones and a microphone and stayed alone in a room, talking to other students through the intercom. According to the researchers, this was done to protect everyone’s anonymity. The theme of the conversation was college life problems, worries and the like.

Next, Latane and Darley divided the participants into three groups:

  • The first group thought they were talking one on one with the other person
  • The second group thought they were talking with two other people
  • The third group thought they were talking in a group of five people

In a certain point of the conversation, a person in the intercom started acting as if he was having a seizure and asked for help. Latane and Darley wanted to investigate the difference of behavior between each group, according to the number of witnesses. These were the results:

  • When participants thought they were the only ones who could help, 85% of them left the room and asked for assistance
  • When participants thought there were other two bystanders with them, that number dropped to 64%
  • In the situation with four bystanders, only 31% of participants searched for help

“Well, okay,” you might say, “Maybe the number of people around you influences the likelihood of giving assistance, but if it were the participants’ own lives that were at risk, I’m sure everybody would do something regardless of the number of bystanders.”

Latane and Darley thought about that too and developed a second experiment to investigate this. How do you think that one went down?

For the second experiment, Latane and Darley once again recruited college students, this time to “fill out a questionnaire.” They divided the participants into two groups:

  • Participants filling out the questionnaire alone in a room
  • Participants filling out the questionnaire with many confederates in the room who were also filling out the questionnaire

A few minutes after the participants start the task, a black smoke starts to creep out from the room’s air conditioner. It gets thicker and thicker until the room is filled with smoke. However, in the second group, the confederates were instructed to ignore the smoke, and so no one seems to be bothered about it. What do you think happened?

  • Of the participants who were alone, 75% quickly left the room and reported the smoke to the researchers
  • Of those who were in the room with the unshaken confederates, only 10% left the room and searched for help, after twice the time of the participants who were alone

This is a surprising result that confirms the first study’s findings: the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely we are to act. Even if we ourselves could be in danger, being surrounded by people who do nothing makes us more likely also to do nothing. This opposes the intuitive idea that the more people there are in an emergency situation, the more likely it is that someone would call for help. As Latane and Darley have shown in their studies, it is quite the contrary.

Why the Bystander Effect Happens

As we have seen earlier, the bystander effect states that the likelihood of intervention is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the more witnesses there are, the less likely each one of them is to intervene in a problematic situation. But why does this happen? What can explain this?

The main reason proposed by Latane and Darley is diffused responsibility. When you are in a large group and something needs to be done, you feel less responsible for the task. There are so many people around; someone else is surely taking charge of the situation, so why should you step up? The sense of responsibility is diffused in the group, and the result is that, very frequently, no one does anything.

This is what happened in the Kitty Genovese situation. The thirty-eight neighbors witnessed the crime and saw each other through the windows. “Of course someone will call the police,” each one of them thought, “a woman is being murdered right on the street!” Unfortunately, diffused responsibility led to none of them taking action.

Another reason for the bystander effect pointed out by Latane and Darley is pluralistic ignorance. Pluralistic ignorance is what happens when you observe a situation and at first think that, for example, it is dangerous. However, people around act as if it isn’t a problem and don’t look concerned. Then, you also assume that it’s really not a big deal and that the right thing to do is just to keep doing what you’re doing and not intervene.

In the Kitty Genovese situation, the neighbors looked around to check how others were reacting, and since no one was getting desperate and fighting to help her (because of the diffused responsibility effect), they continued with their everyday lives despite her persistent cries for help.

How the Bystander Effect Happens

According to Latane and Darley, bystanders go through a 5-step cognitive and behavioral process in emergency situations:

  1. Notice that something is happening – many things influence our ability to notice a situation, for example, being in a hurry or being in a group in which no one notices the event.
  2. Interpret the situation as an emergency – this is where the pluralistic ignorance becomes a problem, especially in ambiguous situations when people aren’t quite sure of what is happening and therefore don’t act in an urgent manner.
  3. Assume a degree of responsibility – this is affected by the diffused responsibility phenomenon and also by other elements such as whether we see the victim as someone deserving of help, whether we see ourselves as someone capable of helping and the relationship between the victim and ourselves.
  4. Choose a form of assistance – this can be a direct intervention helping the victim or a detour intervention like calling the police.
  5. Take action – performing the assistance chosen.

Other Variables that Influence Our Likelihood to Help

Latane and Darley’s crucial studies were further investigated by other social psychologists who continued to develop the knowledge on what makes us more likely to help others and show altruistic behavior. Some of the other variables are:

  • Similarity: we are more likely to help those who are in some way similar to ourselves. This can be regarding gender, ethnicity, clothes, beliefs and even the basketball team the victim happens to root for.
  • Consequences: when we think there will be strong consequences for our intervention, we are less likely to act. For example, many people avoid intervening in emergency medical situations because they are afraid of giving inadequate assistance, making the situation worse and later being held responsible for it.
  • Familiarity with the environment: we are more likely to intervene in situations in places we are familiar with. That can be because, for instance, we know where the emergency exits are or where to find help quickly.

How to Counter the Bystander Effect

Okay, so now you know the dangers of the bystander effect and why and how it happens. You might be wondering: “Is there anything we can do to avoid it? How can we increase the likelihood of helping other people?”

Fortunately, there are possible measures to counter the bystander effect and avoid future Kitty Genovese situations. After all, this is the main reason to study human behavior: not to think of our tendencies in a conformed and cynical way and make the same mistakes over and over again, but to reflect on how we can improve ourselves, our lives and our relationships. So here are a few tips to use this knowledge in our service:

  • Recognize situations where the bystander effect may be present and be aware of them. Realize that we are all bystanders. By doing so, next time there is a problem you’ll be able to notice it, interpret it as an emergency and assume responsibility more clearly.
  • Review your concepts about who deserves help. This can get tricky when people perceive the victim as someone who brought their unfortunate events upon themselves, like drug or alcohol addicts. No one is forced to offer assistance to everybody in need, but be aware of your own ideas and tendencies.
  • Know how to help people in different situations. Seeing yourself as more qualified to give assistance raises the likelihood of that behavior.
  • If you need help, choose a specific person to ask for it. This avoids the diffused responsibility phenomenon. Instead of saying “Someone call an ambulance,” point directly to someone and say “You, call an ambulance!”
  • If someone needs help, be the one to take action. Once people see that somebody is intervening, they are more likely to start offering assistance as well.

A Free Response Question (FRQ) Example

Now that you’ve learned all about Latane and Darley’s bystander effect, try to answer the following FRQ from a past exam:

For each of the following pairs of terms, explain how the placement or location of the first influences the process indicated by the second:

– Presence of other, performance

There are many possible answers to this question, for example social facilitation, social loafing, conformity and the theme of this AP Psychology review: the bystander effect. Whatever you choose, the important thing is to correctly describe the phenomenon of choice and connect the elements “presence of other” and “performance” in a clear way.

So what do you think about the bystander and the diffused responsibility effect? Have you ever been in a situation where you saw Latane and Darley’s principles in action? Share in the comments below!

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