Skip to content

Twitter, Facebook, and the Diffusion of Responsibility

November 17, 2010

Kitty Genovese was a bar manager who lived and worked in Queens, New York. One night, just after 3:15 a.m., she was assaulted, raped, and murdered just outside her apartment building, and though she screamed for help, and though nearly 40 of the tenants in neighboring apartments heard her screams and even saw it happening, none of them called the police or otherwise attempted to help.

That’s the story anyway; the facts have been sensationalized to the point of becoming urban legend about the apathy of the public. None of the witnesses actually seem to have witnessed the attack in its entirety, observing only portions and not necessarily understanding the severity of the situation, and at least one of them did call the police. But the fact does remain that with so many witnesses, comparatively little action was taken.

If you hadn’t heard this story already, you may be wondering why it hasn’t been all over Twitter and Facebook — because, let’s face it, that’s where most of us find out our breaking news, by and large. That’s because it happened in March.

Of 1964.

So I get a little fucking tweaked when I read an editorial like this, regarding a recent appearance by Bill Nye the Science Guy at USC, during which he suffered some sort of fainting spell, and

the students in attendance, rather than getting up from their seats to rush to Nye’s aid, instead pulled out their mobile devices to post information about Nye’s loss of consciousness.

The editorial then goes on to shake its head about oh these kids today, with their Myfaces and Tweeters, so detached from reality by the digital age that they’d sooner tell the internet what happened than call an ambulance, or leap to their feet and race heroically onstage. That sure wouldn’t have happened in my day.

Yes. Yes it would. And it did. And it’s got nothing to do with social networking — well, not with social networking websites, anyway.

See, in the wake of the Kitty Genovese murder, a great deal of psychological research was done to find out why on earth nobody helped that poor woman. And a few consistent findings arose, grouped under the label of the diffusion of responsibility.

Say you’re walking down the street and you come across a man lying on his back, groaning and calling for help. If you are the only person around, you’ll probably stop and help.

But what if you’re not the only person around? What if a couple dozen other people are all on the street too?

I’m sure we all like to think of ourselves as good and compassionate people, but study after study shows that, statistically speaking, that isn’t the case. The larger a group is, the less likely any one of them is to act. Now that we’re doing this thought experiment you’re probably thinking “No way — I’d stop to help, even if everyone else was walking by,” but would you? Really? If 20 other people were around, don’t you think you’d be 20 times more likely to think “Well, someone else will deal with it. There’s all those people around, one of them will surely help him. I’ve just got somewhere to be, is all.”

And meanwhile, each of those 20 others is thinking the exact same thing, and everyone just walks on by.

Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Anyone who has lived and owned a car in a major city has seen another car broken down on the side of the road, and despite having every ability to stop and see what the problem is and help, just driven right on by. Always with a reason, don’t get me wrong — I’m already late for whatever-the-hell, someone else will help, what if it’s some psychopath laying a trap (more likely to occur to you at night), I’m sure they’re fine — and none of them having a good goddamn to do with Tweetdeck for iPhone.

Let’s also note the context of the Nye incident: USC. We’re talking about a roomful of students here. They’re still living in a (hopefully benign) authoritarian social structure — they have professors and deans and presidents of institution above them in the pecking order. Certainly at least one and probably several such responsible adults were in the room at the time, and if the grownups weren’t panicked, the students saw no reason to be. This assimilates another well-known human psychological trait, another aspect of diffusion of responsibility — the tendency to look to authority figures for ethical cues and to accept their judgment over your own — demonstrated most famously in the Milgram experiment.

Make no mistake, if the dean or another authority figure had rushed to the stage and cried “Someone call 9-1-1!”, social psychology just about guarantees, nearly the entire room would have started dialing. And also don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that someone shouldn’t have called 9-1-1 anyway (although, based solely on the superficial research that this “article” did and shared with us, I’m not willing to assume that no one in the auditorium did).

I’m just saying: the inaction by those in attendance at Nye’s collapse has far more to do with psychological tendancies which are probably as old as the human species itself, than with how much time my generation spends on the internet. I’m getting so tired of news “articles” grasping at straws for examples of their predetermined narrative about how socially and emotionally stunted my (and following) generations have become. The same inaction would have, and in similar cases did, take place in the pre-internet ages. The only thing that the digital age has changed is that they now have the capacity, in their detachment, to inform others as it’s happening rather than after the fact.

And incidentally, any students “rushing to his aid” would have opened themselves, and the school, up to potential lawsuits in our sue-happy society. I’d like to think that Bill Nye would be above opportunistic litigation, but the fact remains that if Nye was in fact injured or ill and anyone but a trained and qualified EMT “rushed to his aid,” they’d be exposing themselves to so much liability it’d make your head spin. If you want to shake your old man canes at the degradation of simple decency in the modern world, start there.

This article makes me far more rueful of the state of modern journalism, than that of my generation’s moral compass.



EDIT: To be fair, I know that it’s technically a “blog,” but it’s not some, ahem, random dude with a WordPress template. It’s hosted on Feel free to disagree, but I think there are — or ought to be — slightly higher expectations involved in such a case.

From → rants

  1. A piece of advice I’ve heard if you’re in the kind of situation where you’re saying “Somebody call 911!” instead of just saying “somebody” to nobody in particular, pick a person, point to them, look them square in the eye, and say, “You! You call 911!”

    The purpose being to precisely counter that notion we all have of “somebody else will take care of it” by assigning specific responsibility to a specific person.

  2. Ben permalink

    Coincidentally, this week’s episode of QI featured a question on this phenomenon.

    The other aspect, the lack of journalistic standards in many online “news” services annoys me greatly. It’s probably at least partly to do with there being no by-line. If factual errors or grammatical or spelling errors or even outlandish unproven allegations find their way into an article there’s no come back because there’s no authorship.

  3. In California, and most other states, Good Samaritan laws protect you for rushing to someone’s aid in most cases.

    This protection is particularly important for CPR, where the Good Samaritan is protected if there’s a broken rib , as long as there’s no gross negligence.

    Finally, the original editorial really does read like an old man crying out that the “country is going to hell, and it’s the fault of these kids and their whiz-bang electro-matic thingamagig’s!” Maybe he’s right to be concerned about a sensationalist news headline, but he’s definitely misguided with his outrage. The Update at the end now seems to suggest an “Oh, nevermind”, but doesn’t bother with explaining it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: