Have you ever witnessed an accident in public and noticed how most people tend to flounder and look to others to determine how to react? Or perhaps you have even done this yourself? If so, rest assured that this is not unusual by any means. This response is due to a psychological phenomenon known as the diffusion of responsibility which is when people are less inclined to take initiative in a situation when surrounded by others.


Fundamentally, the diffusion of responsibility is caused by a baseless internal assurance that someone must already be doing something to help or that the lack of reaction in a crowd suggests that the incident is minor. People's slowness to react in such situations is therefore not necessarily indicative of a callous personality but rather their reliance on social cues. 


A number of experiments were conducted in the late 1960s by researchers John Darley and Bibb Latané which entailed asking participants to complete a questionnaire in a room that began to gradually fill with smoke. 75% of the participants who were alone in the room reported the smoke to researchers right away. However, some participants were joined by two people in the room who were part of the experiment and deliberately ignored the smoke; interestingly, only 10% of these subjects reported the smoke. 


The danger of diffusion of responsibility is evident in larger scale instances of it in history, the most infamous example being soldiers of the Nazi regime who attributed their behaviour to the lack of objection from others. 


The key takeaway from this psychological discovery is that whilst there are benefits to calculating your conduct based on others around you, it is crucial to act on instincts in certain scenarios. Another thing to note - if you were to suffer an accident in public, single out someone in particular when asking for help as they are much more likely to respond immediately. Just in case.