You are driving down the road and see a three car accident that has just occurred....what do you do? Stop or keep driving while trying to get a better look at the wreckage? A few years ago I was heading to a local cafe to enjoy lunch with a few friends when out of the corner of my eye I see this deer heading right for the two lane busy highway I was driving on. Then splat......this poor unsuspecting guy on a motorcycle going around 50 miles per hour hit the deer that ran right in-front of him head on. It was as if I was watching the whole thing in slow motion. He flies over the bike and hits the ground like a doll and skidded down the macadam for what seemed like 100 feet. I pulled over immediately and called 911, I was pretty far past where he landed and in my rearview I could see that others were stopped and getting out to help the guy. After I finished talking with the 911 dispatcher I drove off, met my friends for lunch and went on with my business. Should I have gotten out as well? Why didn't I if I was the first car to see it happen? My reasoning ....... All of those other people were helping him and I would just get in the way. I called 911 so I did what I needed to do, right???
About a month ago I was driving on route 78 heading to the Lehigh valley. I happened to notice a state trooper pulled over looking at couple of drums which appeared to contain some-type of hazardous material, given that they had placards on them. Having worked in the environmental field I figured either someone dumped them or they fell off a truck. I thought, 'good luck trying to find who they belong to, they most likely are in a different state by now.' I traveled another five miles and I actually saw the truck pulled over carrying more of the same type of drums and I thought about calling the state troopers to let them know where the truck was pulled over. But I didn't...... I figured the Trooper would find him or someone else would, so why should I get involved. Heck there are tons of cars behind me, they must have seen the trooper and now see the truck and they will call. I just didn't want to get involved, so ............. I didn't.
Why in one situation did I call and the other I didn't? Was I experiencing a diffusion of responsibility (i.e., the diminished sense of responsibility a person feels when he or she believes that other would or should intervene), which is more likely to occur when a bystander can remain anonymous (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2005). No one was going to notice that I even saw the trooper, the drums and then the driver, hence I'm not responsible, right?. "I didn't want to get involved," is a familiar comment, and behind it lays fears of physical harm, public embarrassment, involvement with police procedures, lost work days and jobs, and other unknown dangers (Darley & Latane, 1968). This is exactly how I felt. The worst part is I know I should have done something. My husband hates when I use him as an example but he is much worse and often experiences both the bystander effect and a diffusion of responsibility. This leads us to our current sad and heartbreaking Penn State situation. Did Joe Paterno suffer from the bystander effect or diffusion of responsibility or both?
The bystander effect states that people are less likely to help in an emergency when other bystanders are present (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2005). I think it's important to state that I don't know all the facts, only what the media has put out. Lets 'assume' (you know what that spells) that Joe was told that Sandusky was showering with a young boy in the Penn State locker room. Joe didn't immediately run to the locker room and stop it, he didn't call the police or, as I would have done, found Sandusky and punch him in his face (I know I have aggression issues). My point is that there were many options, but Joe chose to tell another PSU administrator who apparently didn't do anything. Were they experiencing diffusion of responsibility? The diffusion of responsibility hypothesis states that an individual member of a group feels less personal responsibility for potential failure in the pursuit of risky options than he or she would feel if acting alone (Mynatt & Sherman, 1975). What were the social norms these men were following? Social norms are specific to particular groups, as each group creates its own standards for what attitudes or behaviors are acceptable and desirable (Chekroun & Brauer, 2002). It appears that a number of Penn State officials felt that this act committed by Sandusky wasn't so horrid an act as to need police intervention. I am simply dumbfounded that there wasn't one whistle blower so disgusted by this act(s) that they were willing to lose their job to save their moral fiber. Those who engage in deviant behaviors are often victims of negative sanctions by other group members, who exert pressure in order to obtain conformity (Schachter, 1951). The bond between these individuals must have been so powerful that everyone turned a blind eye to it and let it continue.
I am sure all these men involved, who failed to act, are now struggling with their own demons and will for the rest of their lives. We all, at times, fall prey to the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility. But as Voltaire said "Every man is guilty of all the good he didn't do".
Chekroun, P., & Brauer, M. (2002). The bystander effect and social control behavior: the effect of the presence of others on people's reactions to norm violations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 32(6), 853-867. doi:10.1002/ejsp.126
Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4), 377-383. doi:10.1037//h0025589
Mynatt, C., & Sherman. S.J. (1975). Responsibility attribution in groups and individuals: A direct test of the diffusion of responsibility hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22 (6), 1111-1118.
Schachter, S. (1951). Deviation, rejection, and communication. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 46, 190-207.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2005). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. London: Sage.