Oct 18 2019

Diffusion of Responsibility

I still remember the PSA of the crying American Indian, sad because of all the trash that the modern world was spreading in the previously pristine environment. It was powerful, and it had a real impact on me. The ad was sponsored by Keep America Beautiful, and I (like most everyone else) assumed this was an environmental group interested in keeping America beautiful.

Actually the piece was a clever bit of propaganda, which relates to the topic of this post – the diffusion of personal responsibility. I wrote yesterday about the letter from celebrities admitting that they are environmental hypocrites for living a high carbon footprint lifestyle while campaigning against climate change. The conflict is between personal and collective responsibility, and my basic conclusion is that both are important. Many excellent points were raised in the comments, and two points in particular I think deserve additional exploration. The main one, mentioned by townsend, is that this all relates to the diffusion of personal responsibility. This was implicit in my previous post, but it is an important social psychological principle that is worth discussing further.

I first learned about this in my Social Psychology class in college – this is a long well-established psychological principle. The broad brushstrokes are this – humans are social creatures. We evolved emotions of justice, reciprocity, shame, and guilt in order to modify our behavior to be compatible with our social structure. If everyone maximally pursued selfish interests, we could never have a functioning society.

However, problems arise when the sense of personal responsibility is diffused, because this shortcircuits the feedback loops of guilt, shame, and a sense of responsibility. If something is equally everyone’s responsibility, then it is essentially no one’s responsibility. I experience this every time I travel is large groups. Once you get north of about 6-7 people, the group is paralyzed and can’t seem to do anything. Even walking together from point A to point B becomes an exercise in herding cats. However, if you assign someone as the group leader (or wrangler, or whatever) then the group can function as a unit. The same is true on any project – there needs to be clear lines of responsibility.

This lesson was learned with public housing. Common areas soon fell into disrepair and utter filth. This is because no one was responsible for them. If, however, housing was designed with no common spaces – where an individual owner was responsible for their own space, the situation was much improved.

This is basic social psychology and group dynamics, but it applies also to the big questions facing our civilization. So, getting back to our carbon footprint, the main point of the celebrities is that we are only going to make a dent in our carbon emissions through societal change, not individual change, and this is certainly true. We can explicitly add, however, that making the responsibility equally everyone’s is also a failed strategy.

Putting this into a bigger context – I think it is a generally failed strategy to hinge any public policy on ignoring human nature, or pretending it does not exist. Trying to achieve any goal by having each individual person make a continuing series of specific choices is not an effective or sustainable strategy. It is a setup for failure. This principle dovetails with the risk-minimization experts who independently have figured out that if you want to avoid negative outcomes, you cannot rely on each person doing the right thing every time. You need automatic systems in place that make sure the right think happens every time.

However, the caveat to all this, is that you can have a significant impact on public behavior through massive cultural change. This is not easy to engineer, and only works for certain things. And, in fact, probably requires systemic changes also. For example, smoking, especially in public places, has significantly reduced in the past few decades. But this was not accomplished through PSAs. It was accomplished through passing laws essentially banning smoking in progressively more public spaces. This created a culture shift in which smoking in public is considered rude.

How does all this relate back to crying Indians? This brings up the other point to the responsibility issue worth exploring further. The public vs individual responsibility issue can also be cast as a corporate vs public responsibility issue, because in a capitalistic society corporations have a huge impact on behavior and the public square. This story has already been widely disseminated, but is worth summarizing here. The Keep America Beautiful group is actually in industry front group, not an independent environmental group. They are composed of bottling and soft drink companies, and was created in 1953. At the time drinks were mostly sold in reusable glass bottles, but the industry was moving toward individual use disposable containers because they were cheaper. This was creating a glut of trash.

You probable see where this is going. In order to deflect criticism at the industry the Keep America Beautiful group created PSAs, including the famous crying Indian one, to frame the trash problem entirely as one of individual responsibility. The voice over declared, “People start pollution. People can stop it.” Now I firmly believe that people should take responsibility for their own trash, and in fact being a good citizen entails taking reasonable responsibility for any space that you inhabit. Understanding the psychology of diffusion of responsibility can be empowering, allowing you to make more rational decisions rather than going with the flow of your psychology.

The problem, however, is not with the position that people should have individual responsibility, it is in framing big problems as if they are entirely the responsibility of individuals. In fact, people (individual end users) do not start pollution, corporations do – the ones that create the disposable single-use items in the first place.

Let’s set aside the important but distinct question of the complex economical and environmental analysis necessary to determine which is better, cheap single use products or more expensive reusable products. This is not always as simple as you might think. But let’s say hypothetically that it is clearly advantageous to produce reusable soft drink containers, not single-use. What is the most effective way to deal with the resulting trash? Do we alter one corporate decision, or billions of individual decisions? The answer is very clear.

In fact, we should not expect every individual person to undergo the research necessary to determine, for every kind of product they may purchase, what the best choice is from various perspectives (safety, cost, environmental impact, etc.). Free market advocates (of which I am one) might say that this is exactly what we should do. Let the market sort it out through billions of individual choices, rather than top-down governmental fiat. I agree with this – for some things. This free market approach works for features that are readily apparent to the consumer. It fails, however, when product or service features are opaque to the person making the purchasing decision. The market may also create perverse incentives that, for example, favor short-term advantage at great long term harm. Or – they may have individual benefits but diffuse harms.

This is where regulations and policy come in. Sometimes we need to act collectively in our own collective interests through appointed representatives. It is the only effective way to deal with externalized diffuse costs, risks, and harms. History and psychological research shows that the market, and individual behavior, will simply not do it.

Perhaps the celebrity letter would have been better framed by focusing on this – ignore the issue of hypocrisy and focus on what works. We are not going to reduce our collective carbon footprint through individual decisions, for many reasons. We need structural change. Similarly, shaming litter bugs (btw, they are called “litter louts” in the UK) doesn’t really work either. Even fines have a limited impact (because enforcement is difficult). What if we phase out single-use disposable packaging? That’s the kind of change that would be necessary to have a real impact.

No responses yet