‘Brainstorming’ and Diffusion of Responsibility

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There are a lot of murder cases, but one murder case in US sparked controversy, which later led to studies on a specific social-psychological phenomenon.

Kitty Genovese was murdered on a cold night in March 1964, and supposedly, the murder happened in the view of a DOZEN witnesses who DID NOTHING. The story goes that all witnesses heard/saw the attack, but did not do anything. The question: why?

Ironically, the story was later questioned for its accuracy, especially regarding the passive witnesses who ‘did nothing’, but it already resulted in investigation and research that discovered an interesting human insight.

I won’t talk much about the studies because people can google for themselves, so I will jump straight to the findings, which are now popularly known as ‘The Bystander Effect’, and its cause: the diffusion of responsibility.

Put it simply, The Bystander Effect says that the more witnesses there are, the less likely somebody will come forward to help the victim. This happens because people are waiting for each other to initiate help first, and if nobody is helping, the message is no help is needed in the first place. Researchers call it ‘diffusion of responsibility’ – the more people there are, the more the responsibility is diffused among individuals, the less pressure on each individual to react and do something.

I once read that if you are a victim of a crime or accident, and you find yourselves in front of a large group of people only STARING at you (the bystander effect), what you need to do is POINT at someone and asked for HIS/HER help. This way the responsibility comes to him in full weight, which makes it more likely that he will come to help you.

The Bystander Effect has been replicated successfully in many experiments. And this is the irony. Although the Kitty Genovese murder did not really happen as dramatic as the news reported (originally the story had 38 witnessess who did nothing!), but it has led to a new real insight on social psychology.

Interestingly, this diffusion of responsibility may also apply in completely different setting: the famous ‘brainstorming’. I just read this in another book of Professor Wiseman “:59 Seconds” (I once reviewed his book “Paranormality” in this blog too. He is an awesome writer!).

I don’t know about other people, but when you work in creative/communication industry (advertising, event, public-relations, etc.), “brainstorming” is such a familiar activity. The idea is you put a number of people in one room, and everybody tries to lash out as many ideas as possible for a given task, and everybody should refrain from criticizing the ideas. Screening of ideas based on their merits will only happen later on.

This practice has been done for so long that nobody actually questions its effectiveness. We just assume ‘brainstorming’ is a superior activity to individual thinking. Or is it, really?

According to Prof. Wiseman, there has been studies on the effectiveness of brainstorming, and researchers fail to prove its real advantage over individual thinking. In fact, some studies show that individual thinking produces MORE and BETTER ideas than a brainstorming group! How is this possible? Well, according to Prof. Wiseman, the same ‘diffusion of responsibility’ is what happens. Just like you are expecting other fellow bystanders to act when witnessing a crime, in a brainstorm you are also, perhaps unconsciously, expecting other participants to produce ideas. With less pressure on each individual, there is less drive to actually make great ideas.

I find this interesting and counterintuitive to an old practice that nobody bothers to question about :)

Personally, I don’t think brainstorming is all bad. What I appreciate is actually the criticism part – you need sanity check to assess the feasibility of the idea. Also, other people can build on one another’s idea, and I have seen this work out pretty well. So perhaps, a combination may work better, i.e. brainstorm participants must come prepared and have already generated their own individual ideas.

But based on experience, almost NOBODY in Indonesia comes to a meeting prepared….. :)

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7 responses »

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  2. Pingback: Effectiveness of Teams « Actively Lazy

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