Diffusion of Responsibility – Part 1

Posted: January 6, 2011 in Ethical decision-making
Tags: , ,

How do unethical decisions get made?

I think we prefer, where possible, to personify the blame. We love it when ‘someone‘ is to blame, someone had a moral flaw, was too greedy, too cold-hearted, etc. We grew up on tales of malevolent characters and they are still widespread in films, novels, video games even unfortunately the news media. The concept of a bad agent is so easy to grasp.

Reality is somewhat different. How on earth can we tolerate it that there are goods – very likely in our own houses – that may have been made by forced labour, or for unsustainably low wages, or for the benefit of dictators in Africa?

I think one major reason we all tolerate this is precisely the opposite of the stereotyped ‘bad guy’. Responsibility in a globalised world, even within a typical company, is diffused. No one owns enough of the problem that they feel obligated to solve it. Admit it. Do you feel responsible for the conditions under which your goods are made? Probably not. Neither does the person next door. Or the person next to them. Neither do the people who work in the store. Neither do the company’s executives, who will quickly cite competitive pressure or some other imperative that forces their hand. So, even though no one feels responsible, somehow these things still happen.

Psychologists call this the diffusion of responsibility or bystander effect, a form of ‘deindividuation’ which occurs in crowded societies. We are all prone to it. Here is a disturbing illustration:

Another well-known example was the brutal murder in New York of 19-year old Kitty Genovese which happened in a high-density apartment complex and was overheard by at least 38 witnesses, none of whom took any action such as calling the police. Had any one of these people been the sole witness (and the murder took place in a quiet country lane, say) it’s more likely they would have acted.

It’s time to stop passing the buck. In our workplaces, in the places where we shop, it’s time to take our little piece of responsibility.

(Article continues here)

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  1. […] (A continuation of last week’s post) […]

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  4. […] been a long, convoluted journey to get anyone to take action on this […]

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