Day 1,465 – Thankful for a Tragic Lesson of Diffusion of Responsibility I’ll Always Remember

Earlier today I had a reminder of a life lesson that I’ve kept close to my heart for over 20 years. At some level the lesson is never far from the top of mind, never clouding my vision or distracting, but always ready for those important seconds every so often when it is needed.

When in doubt of what to do in an emergency situation, take action. Do not count on others to do what needs to be done. Take action. Until the situation has been taken care of, take action.

Way back in one of my college classes we were discussing the topic of “Diffusion of Responsibility.” This is the social psychological phenomenon in which a person or bystander doesn’t take action when are other bystanders or witnesses around. When something happens almost everyone freezes for a second thinking that someone else will jump in, someone else is better suited to jump in, or almost pretends to not notice and waits for someone else to jump in. Often it is not big deal, but in some cases it can be life or death.

Why do I remember this tidbit so clearly after all these years?

Our TA (Teacher’s Assistant) shared a deeply personal story of why we must train our brains to resist diffusion of responsibility and take action.

Several years before our class she was living in an apartment. She had just left a boyfriend who wasn’t the nicest and it was a hot summer night so all of her windows were open. The ex-boyfriend decided he needed to talk with her again and showed up at her apartment door. When she let him in he burst through the door and proceeded to beat her viciously. She screamed for help as she was attacked. In brief moments of pause she heard her neighbors talking and it was obvious they could hear her screams. Knowing that others could hear her and were not doing anything to help her made it feel even worse as she felt that others thought she wasn’t worth helping or saving. The beating went on for hours and finally stopped when the ex-boyfriend decided it was over. No one called the police to help her.

She said she’d already forgiven the neighbors for not calling the police as she’d since learned, studied and understood Diffusion of Responsibility. Her hope was that by sharing this tragic story we would all remember to recognize when that happens and to be the person who takes action. By the time she’d finished her story and her ask of us there wasn’t a dry eye in class. We pretty much all went up and hugged her before we left the classroom. When I left class I made a personal promise to her to remember the story and to learn from it.

Yes, it’s a very dark story and my heart still breaks for her. I can’t even imagine the pain – physical and emotional – she went through in that night. What I can say is that her lesson has stayed with me all these years and will for the rest of my life. Today I was able to take action and live into the promise I made her and I’m grateful for the lesson and story she shared.

Thanks!!!

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