Diffusion of Responsibility: Reflections on Christine Hung’s Sermon “Heart to Heart”

By Juan Zung

Part One: What I Did

One night, not so long ago, I heard a woman scream. I’m pretty sure she said “Help Me!” By the way her voice tailed off, it seems like she was in a fasting moving car. If she was in trouble, it would have been important for me to get outside asap if I’d have any chance of identifying the vehicle.

I hesitated.

I peeked out the window, looked around, wondered if I really heard what I thought I heard. And then, minutes later, gently walked outside to take a look around. Of course, no one was there. I called the police and told them what I heard. They said they’d make a note of it.


I don’t know why I hesitated. It could have been that I was scared to go out and find myself involved in something that I didn’t want to get involved with. It could also be that I just plain didn’t care if someone I didn’t know needed help. [1]

So, either I’m a coward or I’m a jerk.

And it could very well be that I am both of these things. But there might also be another explanation for my actions.

Part Two: What People Do

Kitty Genovese

Kitty Genovese

Last Sunday Christine Hung preached a message on the importance of empathy. In her sermon, she talked a little bit about a terrible crime that happened 50 years ago in New York City.

In 1964 a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in plain view of 38 witnesses. None of them called the police or made any effort to help her.

Common sense tells us that Kitty’s bystanders were callous and selfish. They only cared about themselves, their safety, their time. If someone else is in trouble, that is not their problem. The world of Kitty’s bystanders, according to common sense, is too small.

And, there is another explanation. Social psychologists say that the murder witnesses’ inaction is explained by “the bystander effect.” This theory says that, with more witnesses comes less action by any one of those witnesses. In Kitty’s case, there were too many people around. And what they felt wasn’t apathy, but a diffused sense of responsibility. The world of Kitty’s bystanders, according to social psychologists, is too big. [2]

I would be apt to say that the social psychologists are correct and common sense is wrong. I would be apt to say that, but I’m not. Because, I have the unfortunate benefit of that experience from the beginning of this post, where I did not act when I heard someone cry out for help. And I know, from looking into my own heart, that neither of these explanations are true for me. They both are.

I did not help because I didn’t think it was up to me to help. Some other neighbor, some one closer to the street, someone who saw more, someone somewhere in this great big world would help.

And I did not help because I was selfish, I didn’t want to be involved, I didn’t want whatever situation was out there to get in here, into my small world.

Part Three: WWJD?

So we encounter the problem of size.

Our worlds are too small, so we are selfish and don’t care about others. And our world is too big, so we relinquish responsibility to others, assuming that someone else will do the right thing on our behalf. [3]

But what can we do? We live with 10 million other people in Los Angeles County. We can’t pretend we’re in a small community. It’s easy for us to say, “someone else will take care of that problem.” And it’s easy for us to say, “what does that have to do with me?” These reactions are natural and nearly automatic for us.

It’s true, we can’t snap our fingers and magically turn off 3 million years of evolution. We are going to do what we will most naturally be inclined to do. That is, unless we make a conscious decision to do something different.

This “conscious decision to do something different” is what I’ve heard people call the “Mind of Christ” and what my friend John once said is the outcome of salvation.

It is the conscious shrinking of our world, so that everyone in it is family, is important, is a part of the same whole that I am. It is also a conscious expanding of our world, so that everyone everywhere is in our midst, in our thoughts and hearts, no matter how far or how different they are from us.

We humans are, by nature, empathic. [4] But sometimes our circumstances block these natural instincts.

Jesus taught us how to unleash our empathy.

He taught us that the kingdom of heaven is big enough that we can keep all of the 7,000,000,000 humans on earth in our hearts and minds.

And the kingdom of heaven is small enough that we can keep each single individual human being in those same hearts and minds.



[1] It still bothers me that I didn’t do more. I realize there is not much I could have done. Even if I ran out immediately, the car would have been a ways down the street, and it was dark, and it was probably a prank… But some shame-ridden corner of my psyche still worries: what if someone was really in trouble and I didn’t help?

[2] The Genovese case is discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. Gladwell uses this example to show how powerful context is in determining how people will act. He cites studies that show, over and over, that people will step in and help if they are the only people available to help. If their perception of their world is small enough, they will act courageously and empathically. Meanwhile, these same studies show that people will do nothing if they believe someone else is available to help. If their perception of their world is too big, they will act callously and apathetically.

From Tipping Point: “Latane and Darley had a student alone in a room stage an epileptic fit. When there was just one person next door, listening, that person rushed to the student’s aid 85 percent of the time. But when subjects thought that there were four others also overhearing the seizure, they came to the student’s aid only 31 percent of the time… When people are in a group, in other words, responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem… isn’t really a problem. In the case of Kitty Genovese… the lesson is not that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her scream; it’s that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her scream. Ironically, had she been attacked on a lonely street with just one witness, she might have lived.” [italics mine]

[3] It is a common belief that people in big cities are apathetic to the plight of their fellow man. We see too many people in need, so we keep our world small, paying attention only to who and what is immediately in front of us. And, we keep our world big, assuming that someone else will step in and help: the government or the church or a non-profit organization. We do not feel like we are responsible. The responsibility is diffused into the larger community. It’s efficient. People don’t get slowed down by everyone else’s needs. But the problem is that those needs still exist. And sometimes, as in Kitty’s case, they can’t wait for someone else to step in and help. They need each and every witness to take action.

[4] Dr. Dan Siegel of UCLA Medical School often discusses the nature of the human brain. His research points to the power of empathy in creating new neuropathways. In other words, when humans show empathy and compassion to each other, our brains literally grow. The benefit of that is not that we get smarter, but that we become calmer, happier, and more self-regulated.

JPjuly'12.001Juan Zung:  Juan is a secular Christian, practicing Christianity but remaining atheistic in his beliefs. If this seems completely contradictory, welcome to his world! He writes freelance copy and he blogs at Ghozt Writer. His posts on Christianity are found HERE.


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