Despite our understanding of the problem however, meaningful action to address it has been severely lacking, with the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report concluding that we now need rapid, unprecedented action.
Diffusion of Responsibility
First identified in a series of experiments in the 1960s, ‘diffusion of responsibility’ is a sociopsychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to take action when in the presence of others.
In one experiment [*], researchers asked participants to complete questionnaires. While participants were doing this, the researchers began to fill the room with smoke.
Alone, 75% of participants reported the smoke immediately. When joined by two additional ‘participants’ however (confederates who were aware of the smoke and instructed to ignore it), the number of participants who reported the smoke fell to just 10%.
The principle behind this behaviour is that with others present an individual’s feeling of personal responsibility decreases. In the context of the experiment, alone the participants acted responsibly, and rationally. When part of a group of three however, the personal pressure to act was reduced because the participants believed that the other people present should or would. Further, the inaction of the other ‘participants’ made inaction seem like a more correct and socially acceptable response.
Subsequent experiments identified a number of factors which could further increase or decrease the likelihood that diffusion of responsibility would occur, such as anonymity, division of labour, group size, expertise, etc.
Can diffusion of responsibility lead to climate change inaction?
In the case of climate change, we know that the direct cause is human induced carbon emissions. To help prevent climate change, we therefore need to reduce these emissions.
Hypothetically, if we had just one emitter responsible for all carbon emissions globally, following the principle of diffusion of responsibility we know the emitter would feel a high level of personal responsibility and pressure to act; they’d be alone, and unable to look to someone else to address the issue in their place. The likelihood of them taking action is subsequently much higher.
In reality however, we know that carbon emissions come from a number of emitters, across a range of sectors. With so many emitters, each aware of one another and the fact that they are not the sole source of emissions, diffusion of responsibility can occur. The feeling of personal responsibility and pressure on each to act is significantly reduced, and therefore the likelihood of action is lower too.
This is not to say that diffusion of responsibility cannot be overcome; just because individuals feel less personal responsibility and pressure to take action, it does not mean that they definitively won’t (as observed in the aforementioned experiment, with the 10% of participants who reported the smoke despite the presence of others in the room). Even with the significantly reduced level of personal responsibility, a number of emitters are still willing and eager to do the right thing and reduce their carbon emissions.
However, with the latest reports stating that rapid and unprecedented action is now required in order to tackle climate change, we need every reduction in emissions available to us, and a widespread acceptance of carbon pricing (strongly agreed by economists to be a key tool to encourage carbon emission reduction). For emitters not yet taking action, and perhaps feeling less pressure to do so given the vast numbers of emitters overall, it’s vital that we take a lesson from diffusion of responsibility and attempt to address it.
As discovered in the original experiments, with the right conditions it’s possible to decrease the likelihood that diffusion of responsibility will occur. In today’s world, with our high level of interconnectivity, social pressure is one such factor. Social media matters (it’s why emmi’s decentralised carbon trading platform can rely on it to help enforce compliance) and with enough people supporting the fight against climate change, pushing for carbon pricing, and making their voices heard we can ensure we’re not hindered by diffusion of responsibility.
It’s our climate, and our responsibility.
[*] Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968)