A person’s willingness to engage in prosocial behavior in a given situation depends on a number of psychological mechanisms. One of such mechanisms is the diffusion of responsibility, which refers to the change in the willingness to act depending on the number of people involved in the situation. Its basic premise is that the more people are involved in a given situation, the less responsible each particular individual feels for engaging in prosocial behavior (Irlenbusch & Saxler, 2019). Widely spread ideas of responsible consumption for environmental protection demonstrate an evident example of such diffusion of responsibility on a large scale.
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An article in the USA Today discussing recycling demonstrates a clear case of diffusion of responsibility as applied to environmental protection. Relying on the idea of responsible consumption, it operates in hypotheticals that are likely intended to motivate the audience to recycle. An example would be “if everyone in America recycled just one plastic bottle, those materials could make more than 54 million T-shirts” (May, 2017, para. 6). This statement facilitates the diffusion of responsibility in environmental matters because it implicitly shares said responsibility between the entire population of the country. As noted by Irlenbusch and Saxler (2019), “the presence of other bystanders reduces the individual feelings of personal responsibility” (p. 146). In the hypothetical case offered in the article, the bystanders constitute the entire population of the United States apart from any part ocular reader – in other words, there are more than 300 million of them. Under these circumstances, each individual person feels like he or she only has a minuscule and largely inconsequential share of responsibility. As a result, framing the issue in such a way decreases the likelihood of an individual actually taking an environment-friendly action.
Awareness of such a psychological concept as diffusion of responsibility changes the perception of the hypotheticals entertained in the article quite drastically. Without such knowledge, the statements like “everyone recycling just one [aluminum] can would reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 6,750 passenger cars off the road” could seem effective in promoting (May, 2017, para. 7). However, knowing about the psychological mechanism of the diffusion of responsibility and how it turns potential participants into passive bystanders allows a different outlook on this approach. It demonstrates how, instead of motivating individuals to take action in the protection of the environment by impressing them with large numbers, such an approach demotivates them by reducing their share of responsibility. As such, the awareness of the concept allows looking at similar strategies of environmental protection from a different standpoint than usual and assessing their limited effectiveness. It shows that the attempts to address environmental issues by equally separating the burden between the multitudes of presumably conscious consumers do not work due to the psychological mechanism involved. Thus, the concept of the diffusion of responsibility allows a more insightful look into environmental issues.
To summarize, diffusion of responsibility features prominently in the decision-making processes of individuals in their daily lives. In particular, any attempt to address environmental issues through responsible consumption and recycling is most likely to suffer from the impact of this psychological mechanism. Distributing the responsibility for environmental protection between the multitudes makes the individual shares of responsibility minuscule to the point of perceived insignificance. Combined with the hundreds of millions of bystanders, it ensures that every individual person is likely to think there is no harm in foregoing environmental action because somebody else will participate in it instead.
Irlenbusch, B., & Saxler, D. J. (2019). The role of social information, market framing, and diffusion of responsibility as determinants of socially responsible behavior. Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics 80(3), 141-161.
May, A. (2017). What would happen if everyone recycled? USA Today. Web.