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I just figured out this term of “diffusion of responsibility” last nite, through a Grim’s indie movie with the title “Sanzaru”. You might not realize this term as what so called nowadays common attitude (is it?), nor did i. We probably are familiar with the terms of individualistic, or self ignorance, or just being indifferent. IMO, those are pretty less the same, but not precisely the same: the existence of ignorance at certain degrees 🙂

Perhaps you once were in one situation which likely would be one of these: a mother got her baby’s strollers wheels stuck in the tram door during rush hours, an elderly was pick-pocketed by a stranger in the crowd, a girl was bullied by a group of young boys in the corner of the street, and nobody was eager and willingly to help. We either once were the crowd itself or the one who was in distress, difficulties. Now you see the red line of those situations: people were there, knew that somebody was in trouble, but none of them would likely to offer a helping hand. Nope, not exactly unwilling to help but preferably to have “somebody else would help, not me. Why should I have to help?” in mind.
Now you see what this so called “Diffusion of Responsibility” really is 🙂 Let’s see a more comprehensive literatures about this.

According to one web I came across by search engine, “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. This phenomenon shows the tendency that the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help an individual in distress (http://psychology.about.com/od/dindex/f/diffusion-of-responsibility.htm).

Another web defined this diffusion of responsibility as this: 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 (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201006/the-diffusion-responsibility). And this web also describes some assumptions of why this phenomenon takes place in the society, “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”.

And see how the short movie I watched last nite exposed this phenomenon (pssttt, these guys from GRIM teamwork are really awesome, creative story boards ever!)

Now you see how sad, discouraging and disappointed it is to be when this diffusion of responsibility takes place, leaving the victim, who should have been helped out of the troubles but not, suffering… Somebody could have saved her, somebody could have avoided her from a –perhaps- lifetime trauma. People heard her screaming, people saw her being abused, people were aware that something bad was happening. But everybody was just turned their eyes out of it, wished that somebody else would help that girl. But everybody had that same wish, that somebody else would help, and then ended up: nobody helped, nobody was dare to take the chance to save her.

The famous case of this phenomenon was about Kitty Genovese. I did a bit of literature research on her case. Kitty Genovese (Catherine Susan Genovese, a New York City Woman) was stabbed to death near her home in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of the borough of Queens in New York City, on March 13, 1964. From an archive of the New York Times which was published on July 25, 1995, it said that Kitty Genovese was assaulted as she made her way from a parking lot to her apartment in Kew Gardens. It also said that “It soon became clear that any number of neighbors had heard the woman’s screams or seen her attacker, and it became a widely accepted fact that no one had so much as telephoned the police. Thus, the outrage over the murder itself eventually was dwarfed by the sense of regret and embarrassment about a city’s collective failure of will (http://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/25/nyregion/reviving-kitty-genovese-case-and-its-passions.html). From another source I found out : that not one of 38 witnesses who lived in her neighbourhood called for help until too late (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/case_study_20080507.shtml). Can you imagine that ? 38 people were likely do nothing until it was too late… shame…

In public spaces, we (or is it me only?) sometimes count on other people presence. I mean, we never know nor expect to be in troubles when we’re far away from home, from people we know. Sometimes I feel safe to have some people around when I have to travel alone, let alone the fact that not all strangers are good people anyway. But still, the presence of others (in a good normal appearance, whatever it is, you got what I mean hehe) in a completely strange place somehow creates that safe feeling. Well, instead of being completely alone in a completely strange places, you take the pick 🙂 but the case of miss Genovese took place in her own neighbourhood, anyway…

Recalling my own experience during my stay in Rotterdam and some of my travel experience. I felt safe when I was in Rotterdam. Perhaps that was because I don’t speak Dutch fluently. I did took Dutch classes for buitenlander (foreigner) but yeah, needs thousands of vocabularies to make us fully aware of what was going on and what was written on the newspaper. But somehow, that was an advantage for I was practically never heard or read any crime news. It made me believe that I lived in a safe place, safe neighbourhood. I sometimes biked all alone or in a small group from the mosque to my apartment after my regular Qur’an recitation was finished around 10-11 pm. Owh, but not at that time when a friend’s room was mugged. Then the other day when I went to my Dutch class, I was not allowed to take the usual path, the police line was there, I was eye witnessed some junkies were caught in the act, but the police were there anyway. Or that summer night, when I came back home from my aunt’s place, all alone, and there was this drunken guy in the metro. I was scared, though it was still bright but it was night anyway. The only things that soothed my mind was this old couple who sit in front of my row.

See that ? How sometimes we count on the present of others, strangers, to create that safe feeling when we were in public spaces. But when we no longer can count on them for a helping hand? Simply say that our livelihood asset, particularly social capital, is depleting. Surely yes we also have to be aware that not all people, strangers, we can trust.

So people, this diffusion of responsibility is seriously a serious thing. It’s not that I’m wishing bad things happen on people, but yeah, the victim could be you, your relatives, or your friends. It’s not that I encourage people to be that one person called hero, but yes, why not take the chance to help people!

PS: seems like this is a great topic for thesis or even a dissertation 😉 connecting between public space, people behavior and diffusion or responsibility in public spaces 🙂 for those who take the Urban and Social Development as their majoring, you can take this into consideration 🙂