This week we introduce the “Bias of the Week” column with an interesting article written by Giovanna Prina, Managing Partner of BB7, the company with whom we developed our INSIDIAE bias card game. Giovanna makes us think about how, within the work team, the diffusion of responsibility bias can cause drops in productivity and also gives us some ideas on how to deal with this risk.

The diffusion of responsibility bias

This bias has been studied since the 1960s and is defined in the article as follows: “This is the socio-psychological phenomenon, studied by Latané and Darley in the 1960s. The input for their study was the murder of a girl in New York. In that situation as many as 38 neighbors witnessed hearing the screams and cries for help, but no one did anything to help her during the attack. What Latané and Darley concluded is that when in an emergency there are many people who could act, everyone tends to delegate the initiative to someone else, especially when the group is large and there is no one with a recognized role to intervene”. In practice, if there is no ‘investiture’ of responsibility (e.g. through explicit delegation), this bias means that we are unconsciously led to think that someone else is responsible. This bias has detrimental effects on small systems, decreasing their productivity, and on organizations – think, for example, of the cases of harassment and discrimination in companies that we may witness and which we do not feel sufficiently engaged in to intervene.

Another effect on an even larger scale is the non-intervention of governments, multinationals, regulatory bodies, and a whole range of other institutions on the issue of Climate Change.  In recent years there has been a lot of interesting research trying to understand the mechanisms by which, despite the imminent danger now scientifically proven and the repeated calls from scientists, actions (from politicians, business leaders, banks, etc.,) do not match the urgency of the change required. Gerdien De Vries, when analyzing climate campaigns, highlights the importance of public communication in dealing with the issue and the fact that they appear not to take sufficiently into account the cognitive biases that impact the behavior of those powerful agents.

The Dragons of Inaction

In addition to “diffuse responsibility”, the biases that act to encourage inaction on the issue include:  the Titanic effect – “we’re all going to sink anyway, the end of the world is inescapable” or, on the contrary, the optimism bias – “technology, the market, something else will save us”, the hyperbolic discount bias – “let’s restore growth in the economy today, we’ll think about tomorrow” which intervenes making us focus only on immediate benefits, the elsewhere bias – “Our country is in the mountains, rising ocean waters don’t concern us”, the social conformity bias – “other governments/businesses don’t act, I don’t see why we should“, the relevance bias – which makes us see advantages and disadvantages only when they really impact us “wind turbines are very useful but we own great oil assets”. David Gifford, from Victoria University, has also found a very evocative name for these inaction biases: ‘Dragons of Inaction’ and proposes an interesting diagnostic tool  from his website, aimed at helping people identify their own personal dragons, although the most fearsome and powerful dragons are our collective ones.

How to deal with the situation

So what can we do then when we’re confronted to these types of situations? Just like in an airplane, when there is a loss of pressure in the cabin and the oxygen masks drop: first, start with self: what’s going on in me right now? What of those biases, of those dragons, might be flying around in my head? Then help others: checking their own assumptions, gaining insights into the thought patterns that are structuring the way they are (in)acting right now. Only when that is done, new possibilities can emerge.


To read Giovanna Prina’s article >>>