Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Diffusion of Responsibility

In psychology, there is a concept called diffusion of responsibility. This concept was created sometime in the 1960's when a crime that was witnessed by many, but reported by none, caused many people to wonder how that could happen. Why would 30 people who see a violent crime occurring with an obvious victim, in this case a woman was being raped, not report it?

Psychologists almost immediately began to think about what kind of person would not at least call 911. What they discovered was that if only one person had witnessed the crime, that person would have called 911. It turns out that the more people that are present, the less responsible each individual person feels. For example, if 30 people witness a crime, in addition to thinking that someone else will call the police, each only feels 1/30 of the responsibility for actually making the call.

Interestingly, I'm going to use this as a segue into the issue of climate change. Science has all but proven that climate change is occurring and is a result of human actions. However, many people still feel compelled to deny it exists or that humans are responsible or cannot do anything about it. Those that deny it either have a hidden agenda or are unable to grasp the magnitude of the issue. Admittedly, it can seem daunting. However, it must be dealt with.

I believe that diffusion of responsibility plays a part as to why many people do not take action. Many likely feel that their small actions will not make any difference. The responsiblility is diffused by over six billion! How could one person's actions make any difference? Well, it can, and here's how: Each persons actions may be small, however, like a pebble in a pond, there is a ripple effect. When one person does something different for the environment, it is likely that someone else will notice, whether it's their child, a friend, coworker, etc. That persons actions may spark someone else to make a small change in their behavior which may spark a change in someone else's behavior, and so on.

Another ripple effect is what their behavior means for others. When I recycle, it not only recycled that material, it also let the recyclers know that there is a market for recycling. As more people recycle, the recycling companies or municipalities will increase capacity. Each person represents a small, incremental increase in the need for that capacity. The same applies when buying eco-friendly products. Buying one product may not seem like a lot. However, your example may cause someone else to buy, which may cause someone else, etc. This demonstrates to the company that there is a desire for that type of product. Increased production usually leads to increased efficiency and lower cost. It ends up being a win/win/win, the person gets a good product at a good price, the company makes a good product for a profit, and the environment is not damaged and may even be improved as a result.

So, I guess the important point to walk away with, or navigate away with, is to not think of yourself as one in over six billion-and-so-what-I-do-won't-make-any-difference, but to think of yourself as one who can make a difference. Your responsibility is not diffused. It is 100% with you.

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