I spent most of my time in my high school psychology class playing 2048 and getting to know the people in my table group. I remember exactly one concept from my teacher’s lectures, and that is the social psychological phenomenon known as the diffusion of responsibility.
The diffusion of responsibility, also known as the bystander effect, is the phenomenon that a person is less likely to act when witnessing an injustice or catastrophic event the more people there are in the vicinity. The witnesses of the event are less likely to act because they assume someone else will.
My teacher explained the effect by sharing the story of Kitty Genovese, a young woman murdered on the steps of her apartment building. The New York Times wrote an article about the murder that rocked the country. They claimed that 38 people witnessed the helpless woman being stabbed to death, not helping because, “they didn’t want to get involved.” While it was later proved that the number of witnesses was significantly lower, the story remains impactful as a parable of the danger of bystander apathy.
I think this concept stuck with me because the moment I heard about it, I felt called out. I left class seeing a montage of events I had walked away from without offering help: times I had seen someone crying in the street or hallway, witnessing people fighting or seeing someone get very sick on the sidewalk. At the time, I was merely a high school student and had reasoned I was unqualified to help anyone. I walked by these suffering people with a million excuses. I realized that, in a way, I was one of the fabled 38 witnesses.
The University of Texas’s Ethics Unwrapped site explains, “When we don’t feel responsible for a situation, we feel less guilty when we do nothing to help. So, in this way, diffusion of responsibility keeps us from paying attention to our own conscience.”
We at Scroll believe in rejecting the natural instinct to put responsibility on others in times of crisis. We believe in helping those around us.
“May we show our love and appreciation for the Savior’s atoning sacrifice through our simple, compassionate acts of service,” said President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in an April 2011 address.
Our simple acts of service might include briefly getting involved in the life of a stranger. It might mean calling an ambulance or making sure someone is alright.
The first time I experienced the other side of the bystander effect, I was on the Jacob Spori building’s bathroom floor.
It turns out I’m quite allergic to guaifenesin, an expectorant found in most cough and allergy medicine. I discovered this after taking Mucinex one fall day in 2019. I sat in class as my body began to heat up. I left early, making it just in time to a one stall bathroom to throw up. After vomiting a bit, I started to feel weak. I couldn’t stand and I had a difficult time keeping my eyes open. I danced in and out of consciousness.
I remember hearing the door open and close many times. Sometimes I heard someone asking if I was alright but most of the time I heard faltering footsteps and the shutting of the door.
I’m not sure what I would do if I walked into a bathroom with a peculiar girl laying on its floor. It probably looked like I had just chosen an odd place for a power nap. However, I hope I would do something similar to the kind soul who bought me a bottle of water. As a girl in the Spori building, she was likely not studying to be a nurse and maybe felt unqualified to help. Yet, she saw my predicament and did what she could.
I mustered up what little strength my guaifenesin riddled body could handle and sipped some of the water. That is what helped me stay conscious until a friend of mine was able to pick me up.
We may not always know the “correct” way to handle a possibly dire situation. However, we should always try to help, whether that’s phoning the police or simply buying a bottle of water. We need to reject feelings of the diffusion of responsibility and act.
A beautiful example of strangers acting was seen in New York City on Jan 26, 2020. What started with two to three men attempting to lift an approximately 4,000 pound vehicle, resulted in a dozen strangers saving a life.
Someone in an SUV ran over a German woman named Veronika as she crossed a street with her groceries. Once a few bystanders noticed, they immediately went to help. After one person took action, the group multiplied. The group effort was an inspiring display that deep down, people want to help each other. It only takes one person to dispel the diffusion of responsibility.
As we actively listen to our consciences and the Holy Ghost, we can do our part in helping and serving those around us, even when we feel unqualified.