Friday, June 8, 2012

Diffusion of responsibility, NIMBYism and deciding to be someone in support of a free society


In 1964 New York City, Kitty Genovese is repeatedly attacked over the course of a half hour in the courtyard encircled by several apartment buildings. No one calls police. 

In your typical baseball game, a high fly ball is falling in shallow centre. The 2nd baseman has tracked back while the centre fielder as ranged forward. At the last moment, both stop and the ball drops between the two millionaire professional baseball players.

In a standard social psychology textbook, these are examples of what is called “diffusion of responsibility.” And, in the case against Luka Magnotta (born Eric Newman), diffusion of responsibility can't impose upon jury availability if we want justice, but who is going to want to view the video evidence of the murder, indignities and dismemberment of Jun Lin?

Diffusion of responsibility

When a group of individuals is faced with an action that must be taken by someone within the group, any individual is likely to assume “someone else will do it” — they will diffuse the responsibility out across the entire group; of course, if each individual within the group diffuses responsibility to “someone else,” then no one ends up doing it. In 1964 New York City, the actual events did not quite transpire as the eventual myth surrounding the tragedy would evolve, but the case has become a classical real-world working illustration in support of the then fledgling discipline of social psychology, that branch of psychology that emerged to recognize, examine and attempt to make sense of the intricate manner in which an environment can influence decision-making. 

It appeared that everyone who witnessed the attack also saw other people witnessing the attack and assumed “someone will call the police” (the specific phenomenon in this case is referred to as “bystander effect”). In the baseball game, the second baseman heard the centre fielder calling for it, and the centre fielder saw the second baseman tracking it…so they both stopped to let the other guy catch it. 

In a twist on this concept, social progress can often be hindered and hampered by the conflict of individual rights vs. the common good. If civil planning calls for a new highway and the plans cut across “my property,” I might be inclined to show up at the zoning town hall meeting to cry out “Progress is great and everything — just, Not In My Back Yard!” This is another way of saying “someone else will contribute to this progress.”

Who holds the hot potato?

The topic of diffusion of responsibility came up during a recent conversation with someone close to me (who shall remain nameless to protect his identity) about Luka Magnotta. There is a video on the internet that allegedly was posted by him, purporting to record in gruesome, graphic detail the ice pick murder of his gay ex-lover Jun Lin, followed by the sexual desecration and dismemberment of the body. I’ve read tweets and comments on the internet of people wondering how anyone would want to look at the video — who would hold on to that hot potato? 

I asked, during that recent conversation, whether that person would be willing to accept a call to jury duty that naturally would require having to view that video along with whatever other evidence would be submitted in the process of trying the defendant; before I could finish the question, the answer came back most abruptly, “Nope.” So, then I asked* “If the court failed to find a jury, would you be okay with the defendant being set free to walk the streets?” 

*If you are a lawyer or savvy with law, don’t write to say “that’s not how it works,” unless you’re going to share how it does work. I’m not a lawyer, I just believe there needs to be more engagement of the workings of due process at the level of the common person in order to better understand the society in which we live, and perhaps provide clarity that will debunk right wing propaganda criticizing what they refer to as a lenient justice system that favours criminals, which I believe to be a poor conclusion based on a lack of understanding “the system”.

The system of free society

Anyway, the point is, a person is innocent until found guilty by a jury of peers in a court of law (which is the topic I’ll be exploring in an upcoming series). If there is no jury, how can we get a conviction? And, if we cannot get a conviction, isn’t an innocent person free to go? And thus we consider diffusion of responsibility.

One of the reasons we have a jury of peers is to increase the likelihood of getting a fair trial by having your case decided by “people like you.” This system is, therefore, biased in favour of the innocent, reducing the incidence of sending innocent people to prison. If we can’t find people to willingly participate in this process, we are in danger of giving up that protective mechanism, with the increased risk of one day being charged with a crime we did not commit and then finding ourselves before a jury of people who are unlike us, who can’t see things from our perspective, and who will take away our rights and freedoms unjustly.

The inherent thrust of a “free society” concept is that we don’t just take away people’s rights and freedoms without exertion, effort, and expense. Free, innocent people have rights, one of which is that an arduous process must determine guilt, not gut feelings and whims magnified by misinformation, speculation and conjecture. 

Yes, we acknowledge that, in the pursuit of that arduous process, certain rights are diminished, such as the right to move freely while being detained during the course of due process, etc. However, we concede the give-and-take of handling the complex implications of the free society concept: someone who is “still innocent” has some rights curtailed, while someone who has been convicted still retains some rights as dignified human beings (and, there are other systems that treat convicted criminals with far more dignity and “kid gloves” than even lenient Canada, and find that they get better results in terms of reduced recidivism and real rehabilitative achievement by focusing on the reality that the punishment for breaking the law is the loss of freedom, not the loss of dignity nor the endurance of excessive cruelty while surrendering freedom to pay for a crime).

One of the hopes of this post, and the series that will follow, is to raise the sense of value we have for the notion – in all its implications – of freedom. I believe that the valuation of freedom is the greatest deterrent against crime, for those of sound mind to grasp it. Mental, psychological and emotional ill-health are all very real factors that can hinder one’s capability of understanding freedom to the degree that it can function as a deterrent. 

Lesson from my hockey-officiating career

I spent a year officiating hockey as a level-2 certified referee, and I learned a lot, not just about hockey, but about life. One thing that struck me, having played hockey at a high competitive level (triple-A), is that no one ever taught us kids the rules while we were playing. Sure, we learned enough to move the puck from here to there, and left it to the refs to blow the whistle when they didn’t like something. One of the hallmarks of junior hockey is the unfortunate phenomenon of “hockey parents” in the stands fighting and yelling at the coach, the other coach, the players, other parents…and definitely at the officials, and one of the reasons for all the fighting is that people simple do not know the rules.

We played the game, but we had little idea of the details of how the game works, insofar as complex rules are concerned. I’m sure the same could be said of the finer nuances of baseball (what exactly IS a “strike zone”?) or basketball (was that a foul or an offensive charge?)

And such is the case with life. There are many rules, but a limited degree to which people will learn everything they need to function productively in society. There’s a lot required to support a free society concept and, for all those who think this concept is bad, or that it’s not worth fighting for, take some time out to seriously consider the alternative – a society in which someone is assumed guilty without due process is a society in which
  • people disappear in the middle of the night, never to be seen again; or
  • you may bump into someone while riding the city bus, be charged with assault and awarded a criminal conviction, social stigma, lost wages and employability without ever getting an opportunity to say “hey, the bus hit a pot hole, it could have happened to anybody;” or
  • writing an article that criticizes the mayor, the chief of police, or the local librarian could get you fired, or convicted of treason.
If we want safe streets, and we want criminals “put away,” it’s going to take people who are willing to get their hands dirty and, in the truest sense of democracy, actively participate in the process, and not diffuse that responsibility to someone else because, to someone else, I am “someone else.”

While studies show that diffusion of responsibility does happen, studies also show that assumption of responsibility also happens. If a person in a situation perceives herself to be “the only one who can do something,” she is more likely to do something. When people find themselves thinking “somebody’s got to do something,” they tend to decide that they’ve got to be that someone.

A free society concept assumes that each individual wants the responsibility of bearing a fair share of the burden inherent in the concept. Government “of the people, for the people, by the people” includes me among “the people.” If I take that seriously, then I will be less likely to dump my responsibility off on “someone else.”

Jury duty

In the meantime, somebody viciously murdered Lin, cut his body into pieces and then mailed some of those pieces to various government offices. A person capable of doing such things to another human being is someone we need off the streets. We’ve got a suspect in custody, and a trial hopefully will ensue as soon as possible without a rush to judgment that cuts corners and threatens to set him free on technicalities.

Twelve citizens are going to have to watch that video and agree that it points to the accused as the perpetrator of such vile and heinous acts, so we want to make sure we’ve got the right person; that the evidence is presented in a manner that clearly points to the right person, and that the jury is capable of returning the right verdict.

Statistically, sure, for 99.99999% of the population of Ontario, “someone else will do it” is reality (a jury is twelve people with alternates standing by, out of a provincial population of 12.8 million people is an infinitesimal portion). However, generally speaking, let’s be mindful that when diffusion of responsibility is permitted to permeate a process, we end up standing around while dropping the ball in our midst.

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