• Alex Zakharov

Shared Responsibility

In this short blog, we would like to express our thoughts on the problem of shared responsibility and its current implications. However, most importantly, we want to leave you with some questions that could get you thinking about this important subject. 

Perhaps, most of us can relate to the following snapshot of university life: it is 10 minutes before the end of a lecture, when someone in the audience starts to pack their stuff. It doesn't come as a surprise when the rest of the students proceed to do the same, while the professor attempts to finish the lecture by raising her voice to get the last drops of attention. In an apparent sign of disrespect towards the lecturer, the student body, as a whole, does not seem to view this as a big deal. But why?

To better understand this situation, one might pose the following question: could such a thing happen in a class of one student? Two students? Clearly, a single student, for whom the lecture is dedicated and who is being observed, wouldn’t do such a rash move, right? It seems that the behaviour of a group is changed primarily because of its size.

Generalizing this particular scenario, one can stumble upon countless problems that possess the same underlying characteristic. Take recycling. Surely, one would not be motivated to recycle in the absence of personal surveillance or strong environmental beliefs. The latter is difficult to acquire (and even more difficult to maintain), while the former requires capital and, perhaps, more importantly, encapsulates the issue we are discussing in this blog.

What is the concept that underlies this type of situations? From the lecture example, one could get a glimpse into the foundation of this problem – shared responsibility (more commonly referred to as ‘diffusion of responsibility’). Shared responsibility is a social phenomenon that drives people to feel less responsible for actions when taken in a social setting. Its implications come in many forms and most likely seem quite self-evident to many of the readers of this blog. However, history tells us that many of such self-evident propositions or problems need to be formalised in some form of academic texts or laws. 

Importantly, addressing the problems arising from shared responsibility, in an economy where pro-environmental behaviour needs to become more prevalent, seems to be a good thing to do. Such behavior is fundamentally difficult to motivate, given that it exhibits certain characteristics that can be considered ‘unnatural’ to humans from an evolutionary standpoint. The central problem being – humans are rare to pursue actions with long-term benefits, choosing short-term success instead. 

But through inspecting the phenomenon of shared responsibility, we conclude that it cannot and should not be considered an axiomatic cause for certain behaviours – we need to go even deeper. What underlies shared responsibility itself? In its presence, what causes humans to act in the way that they do? Could one discriminate between shared responsibility and anonymity? If a person throws a piece of trash on an empty street, is he driven by the absence of personal repercussions or the insignificance of his actions, or both? There seems to be a number of factors that, when mixed together, give rise to the behaviour that can be ‘explained’ with shared responsibility. Such factors include anonymity, hierarchical group structure (accountability), group size, etc. Addressing each of these major reasons may be of crucial importance for solving the issues arising from shared responsibility. Our team, however, for a second, wants to consider a more powerful and long-term approach.

In this approach, we consider another type of responsibility that could be used to solve some of the pressing issues described earlier – personal (anonymous) responsibility. Assume, a person becomes an observer of herself – a self-observer. Such self-observer becomes more conscious of her own behavior, imitating the previously mentioned idea of surveillance. In situations, when a morally questionable decision is being made, the self-observer can make all the difference.

At this point, it is important to make a distinction between introspection and self-observation. In the former, a person observes her inner mental states and thoughts without explicitly attempting to separate the observer and herself, while in the former, the self-observation must be performed from third-person by creating a virtual mental representation of an observer. If trained to perform such self-observation, a human may change his/her behavior significantly and be more independent of the social setting.

Could we develop (or train) a sense of personal (anonymous) responsibility in kids at a young age – perhaps in school or kindergarten?

Certainly, anonymous responsibility – where a person takes responsibility for his/her actions in any setting as a result of self-observation – would be a superior form of ‘surveillance’ and could be extremely powerful in the long term.

Our world is facing critical problems that must find solutions grounded in the actuality of human behaviour, which must morph to be more prosocial and pro-environmental. In this blog, we considered yet another interesting phenomenon of human behaviour and we hope we could get you thinking about this complex topic with us.

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