Diffusion of responsibility means that the bigger the group the less chance that anyone in the group will take action. In a typical experiment people are left to wait in a room, which is rigged so that smoke starts coming in under a door. A person who is alone will usually leave the room and seek help quickly. In a group each person becomes less likely to respond, in a large group much less likely, even as the smoke gets thick. Responsibility is “diffused” over the group, no individual feels that it’s their job to take action. One form of diffusion of responsibility is the bystander effect, where large numbers of people can see or hear terrible things happening and do nothing – each waiting for someone else to act.
Look around and you’ll see it everywhere. The way that dirty dishes multiply if left alone in the sink. The way that we can all stay seated on a full bus when an older person could use a seat. The way that community and voluntary groups are always starved for active members. The way that we all keep driving when we (most of us) understand that there are better ways. The way that we’re all going to keep arguing and avoiding action on climate change while the world reaches the tipping point (the smoke is getting pretty thick in here).
Those that would prefer to do nothing about climate change are making diffusion arguments explicitly. New Zealand is too small. Our emissions don’t matter. We shouldn’t be leaders. There’s no point when China isn’t doing anything. Recently the Key government went even further in its denial of responsibility, telling the world that we’ll aim for 10-20% reductions in emissions if they aim for 30-40%. The problem with diffusion is that everybody can make the same arguments and the outcome is that nothing gets done. So don’t buy in to it for yourself, and don’t accept it from our government. We can’t wait for everyone else to solve the big problems, it’s up to us.