Social Psychology

How Diffusion of Responsibility Helps and Hurts Trump’s Coup

Four Scenarios Featuring Diffusion of Responsibility

How does the diffusion o responsibility link these four scenarios of wacky public high jinks together?

Scenario 1: A week ago, the Georgia voting-system implementation manager, Gabriel Sterling, stood before the media and pleaded with the Ol’ Pussy Grabber to “stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence” because he lost the election. he explained that many people involved in the election were getting death threats. He declared, “Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed. It’s not right.” Because even in Trump’s America, it still isn’t right to kill someone just because you think they did something you didn’t like maybe.

Of course, the Ol’ Pussy Grabber responded with Meh! The election was rigged and voter frauding was done to ME! As far as I know, no Georgia state election worker has yet been hurt or killed. If you know of someone who has, please let us know in the comments.

“We will not stand down, we will not stop, we will continue to rise up, we will continue to take this election back for the president that actually won it by a landslide. This is not over. It is far from over – in fact, it’s just beginning.”

Genevieve Peters, Michigan Secretary Of State Says Armed Protesters Descended On Her Home Saturday

Scenario 2: Last Saturday night armed demonstrators descended on Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s house to shout their obscenity laced displeasure about the Ol’ Pussy Grabber losing the Michigan election by 150,000 or so votes. They blamed her for “stealing” the election.

Even though Benson has armed police officers watching her house and on scene that night, the threat of violence against her was there and protesters seemed to promise not only more of the same, but an escalation as time goes on. In a video of the protest, Genevieve Peters says, “We will not stand down, we will not stop, we will continue to rise up, we will continue to take this election back for the president that actually won it by a landslide. This is not over. It is far from over – in fact, it’s just beginning.”

Scenario 3: Earlier tonight, I went to a restaurant to get a take away order. While waiting, I saw a three year old toddler walk through the small sitting area and out the door! She had come from the “back”where the kitchen and supplies were. The restaurant is part of a large apartment complex and is separated from the street in front by stairs and a walkway and there are “guards” around — We live in Cambodia where guards abound; they blow their whistles a lot and say “Hi!” but are otherwise ignored — and other shops along the walkway. I hesitated for a second. I looked at the women working there. I looked at the three men sitting there who also watched her walk out. And, I got up and walked out to check on her. She went into the hairstylists next door with three or four people walking past her without the slightest sign of concern.

Scenario 4: The Ol’ Pussy Grabber is widely perceived by many of the talking heads on the TV to be committing a COUP by trying to get legal election results overturned in no less than three states, which is SHOCKING and DANGEROUS. Even more concerning and mysterious, according to the pundits, is the utter silence by the Congressional Repubes who are not condemning the attempt or telling Trump to knock it off already and accept his defeat.

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Diffusion of Responsibility Explained

How does diffusion of responsibility link these four together? Let’s first think about what the term means.

Diffusion of responsibility is a social phenomenon that occurs when no individual in a group of people takes an action that is clearly needed. If you’ve taken a CPR course, they tell you to assign a specific person with the responsibility of summoning an ambulance. You are taught to say, You! while pointing to someone, call an ambulance! Rather than screaming CALL AN AMBULANCE! to the heavens. Too often it has happened that everyone in the crowd of on lookers just assumes that someone else will be calling the ambulance, so no one does. The responsibility for taking action has been diffused across the group with no single person infused with enough responsibility to be jolted into taking action.

Diffusion of responsibility is one of the causes of the bystander effect. When you are a bystander or witness to an event, you are not directly involved, you don’t have a specific role to play. Essentially, what happens is that a temporary behavioral norm forms among the onlookers. Norms are rules that govern behaviors in specific situations like shaking hands when you meet someone. We all know what to do in a specific situation because we have internalized rules to follow.

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Diffusion of Responsibility Applied

Let’s apply these ideas to our four scenarios and see what they tell us.

Isn’t it likeable?

THE RESTAURANT AND THE TODDLER: None of the bystanders besides me acted to ensure the safety of the little girl. Everyone who saw her knew that she was far from the caregiver who was responsible for her. They just assumed that she was safe because everyone else within sight was acting as if she were safe meaning they were doing nothing. No one would let a toddler be in danger would they? Of course not. Since no one was intervening, she must be safe. It’s just logical, right?

GABRIEL STERLING AND THE GEORGIA STATE ELECTION WORKERS: No one was killing or doing violence to them because no one felt enough responsibility for killing or doing violence to them. Sure, the Ol’ Pussy Grabber was identifying them as the people who allowed the election to be stolen and maybe they even did some nefarious deed to steal the election. They at the very least aren’t lifting a finger to help him steal it. Imagine Gov. Kemp — who if he were Sec of State, he woulda stolen the election by now, you know that — hiding behind the law — THE LAW! — as if that is even a thing to refuse to steal the election for Trump. RINO. The problem is the Ol’ Pussy Grabber is not calling out Bubba Cornfed to take his AK-47 and shoot them up. He ain’t ordering the Proud Boys to march into the state capitol building to or vote counting centers and shoot every last one of the thieving cowards, now is he. The problem is that it is ambiguous. None of the people who could do the killing or the violence really feels like they have permission to do it. They don’t have a social norm of violencing people under those circumstances. They have the social norm of threatening them, though, so they act on that.

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JOCELYN BEnSON AND HER FOUR YEAR-OLD SON: Everyone of those armed protesters was sure that the Ol’ Pussy Grabber would want them to shoot someone in the name of stopping the steal. But, they don’t have a social norm that governs when you shoot an unarmed middle-aged woman and her four year-old son putting up Christmas decorations in their own home. If someone had just shot someone, then they woulda all started shooting all the guilty peoples. Until someone started shooting Jocelyn and her son, no one was quite sure that they were guilty. If someone woulda shot them, then they woulda known they were guilty and okay to shoot, so they woulda shot her, too. It is just logic. Guilty people get shot by good people. The shooters are good, so if they shoot someone, it is because they’re guilty. There is no arguing with that logic. There just has to be a first shooter.

CONGRESSIONAL REPUBES: It isn’t their job to stick their neck out and tell the Ol’ Pussy Grabber to stop couping our election and accept that he lost. He’s making everyone very uncomfortable. Some of them are even fidgeting in their seats. Susan Collins has started to clutch for her pearls at least twice before she composed herself and lowered her hand. Tim Scott has even started talking aimlessly about discrimination that he’s experienced as a boy in the Deep South and Thom Tillis was heard to stifle a nervous giggle just the other day. They are plumb uncertain about how to handle the situation. They all have the notion that someone orta do something. So, they look around and see no one doing anything and they just figger, well, maybe not.

Reasons Congressional Republicans Don’t Take Responsibility

In a year or two when it is clear that it is safe and no personal risk is theirs, they’ll be happy to sit down with some sympathetic reporter to explain that wanted to do something and they hated all the couping that was happening. They were just so mad at that derned Ol’ Pussy Grabber! They whispered behind closed doors to their Dear Diary that it was wrong and there oughta be a law or something. If they had just realized that no one was going to stand up for democracy other than those who did, then they woulda, but there was no way for them to know that, so they didn’t. It’s not their fault, see? It’s just logic.

I mean, imagine, would you, if they had stood on their chair in the Senate chamber and shouted to the ceiling for god and Mitch McConnell and the Ol’ Pussy Grabber and all the MAGAs to hear that garsh darn it, the votes were cast and counted and Trump lost, now let’s get on with the business of governing and then one of the court cases succeeded or a legislature had appointed an alternate set of electors or a secretary of state had thrown out precincts of ballots how embarrassing that would be! They woulda been wrong. It is simply too big of a chance for a lowly backbencher of a senator to take.

Unless and until they are held accountable for their actions, they will continue to stand by and do nothing while Trump and friends attack our democratic ideals. Today, we don’t have norms for revolting against our state or national government, so we tend not to. But, next time, with this experience stored neatly in our unconscious just waiting to be activated, someone somewhere just might then act. As long as the Congressional Repubes are not given a clear direction by either party leadership who is secretly or not so secretly hoping that the coup will succeed or from their constituents, then they will sit and do nothing.

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“Oil Slick” by arbyreed is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

8 replies »

  1. I’m reminded of the scene in the Mahabharata (the one which becomes the Bhagavad Gita) in which Arjuna is supposed to cast the first spear to begin the great battle is having second thoughts and Krishna sits him down (stopping time, he is a god after all) and explains reality and karma and all that stuff (The Gita), and with Arjuna’s mind settled, the battle can begin.

    Of course, Jesus is supposed to have saved someone from stoning with the “who will cast the first stone?” challenge.

    Commonly, in many situations where a group of police officers confront a suspect, if one of them shoots, then they all shoot.

    Trump denies being responsible for anything (other than “winning”) so often it almost qualifies as a mantra. He can’t order the bully-boys to act, no matter how much he may agitate them. I sort of wonder how he was maneuvered to order the drone strike on that Iranian general. The guy must have already been on a hit list and the opportunity was presented as too good to pass up (A Big Win). But since he sees his followers as losers, he can’t be confident of their victory if he does tell them to start shooting, so he is stuck with pointing out that they aren’t shooting, so his rhetoric doesn’t matter (“See what a bunch of weak losers they are.”)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!
      Just as an aside, I don’t know how ideal the opportunity to assassinate Soleimani since it was at the the Baghdad International Airport. There were lots of opportunities for civilian casualties. I think someone ginned Trump up with the need to retaliate and then said we’ve got a small window to get Soleimani. Everything Trump does is impulsive or damn near.

      That’s the thing about Trump at his heart he’s a coward. He’s afraid of making a mistake. It’s why he’s only taken limited military strikes and hasn’t started a real shooting war. Pushing ISIS out of its last bits of territory hardly counts since it was pretty much over when he got in office.

      Actually ordering people to engage in violence would be a big risk with little assurance of the outcome. There are two competing factors here that, I think, diverge as time goes on. First, the further along we get in the process of electing the president, the more obvious it is that #BidenHarris are it. Whether people like it or not, the further we get the greater the number of people who will accept it. Luckily for us, that is baked into our deep culture. If we didn’t have a revolution at the outset of the Great Depression, we aren’t going to have one now.

      The other is the outrage over the election being stolen from Trump. It is taking time to stoke those flames and for it to become apparent that no matter what happens Trump is not going to be handed the election. The outrage is building among his core supporters. We’re seeing more, not less, protest and agitation.

      But, for it to get to actual shooting and systemic violence is not very likely. We are very likely to get a lone wolf type thing where one person or a small group goes on a shooting rampage like what may have been averted in Philadelphia during the vote count. The prospects of a large mob lynching someone like the Michigan secretary of state or real insurrection, which is what would be needed to overturn the election.

      Trump is too much of a coward to “order’ anything like that. He’ll hint at it hoping that his followers will fill-in the blanks, but he won’t order it. I guess one reason is that no one has set up the chain of command. The Proud Boys and militias would have to better organized with stronger connections between them and a stronger connection to the WH.

      I think at some level every Trump supporter who is out there protesting knows deep down — deep culture again — that there is a line not to cross. The further through the process we get, the more the protests are becoming his hardcore supporters. People on the periphery begin to drop out. Getting even the core to cross the line into large-scale violence is going to take more than outrage over a fait accompli.


      Liked by 1 person

      • It might help that all of Trump’s remaining lawyers now officially have COVID, which offers them a way to stop jetting around and even quietly quit the game without losing to much face. It is also becoming far too obvious (if it wasn’t already) that having your state run by Republicans (such as Florida and Texas) is imminently bad for your health, not eventually or maybe, but immediately. But the story of the stolen election will never die. The best thing it can do is convince those infrequent GOP voters to stay home next time because there’s no point.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!
          The infrequent Trump voter is the real curiosity here, isn’t it? Will they ever turn out again? How about the new voters that the Dems signed up, will they be turning out again? That’s where we may see some change in the future like maybe the Georgia Senate runoff.


          Liked by 1 person

          • We will see. It does appear that the GOP voters in GA are a bit confused by the simultaneous demands to go vote and the claims that it is rigged. Hopefully, the Dem voters have gotten a clearer message.

            Liked by 1 person

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