Picture this: you are the first person to get to class one day, so you sit alone and wait for your classmates and teacher to show up. All of a sudden, smoke starts billowing from the wall vent. You would seek help or pull the fire alarm, right? Now picture this: it is the middle of the period, and your teacher is lecturing in front of a full class. You notice smoke billowing from the wall vent, so you look around to see if anyone else sees what you see. Your classmates look at the smoke, shrug, and continue on with the lesson. Do you still seek help or pull the fire alarm, even though nobody else seems to care about the smoke coming from the vent?
When you are alone and encounter an emergency, the pressure to take action weighs heavily on you. But what about when other people witness the emergency, too? Do you stick to your intuition and do something, or do you trust that others in the group will act accordingly or have knowledge of the circumstances that you do not? Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley put this exact situation to the test in a 1968 study known as the Smoky Room Experiment.
The Smoky Room Experiment
The Smoky Room Experiment was an investigation into a phenomenon known as “diffusion of responsibility.” In the words of the study’s authors, “if an individual is alone when [they] notice an emergency, [they are] solely responsible for coping with it. If [they] believe others are also present, [they] may feel that [their] own responsibility for taking action is lessened, making [them] less likely to help.”
Latané and Darley hypothesized that passive behavior from other witnesses to an emergency will indicate to an individual that the event is not actually dangerous, and thus influence them not to react. A few social factors contribute to this predicted lack of action. First, individuals feel pressure to adhere to the perceived norms of the group they are in. They do not want to act in a manner contradictory to the general atmosphere of the group in order to avoid potential embarrassment. Second, people in crowds tend to behave similarly. If others in the group are behaving in a certain way, individuals within the group assume that the behavior is the norm and follow suit.
The Smoky Room Experiment tested these intuitions by placing individuals in a fake emergency situation, and with different group dynamics. In all the experimental conditions, subjects were asked to complete a survey in a room that slowly filled with smoke. The smoke was, of course, harmless, but the subjects were unaware of this. In the first experimental condition, subjects were alone in the room. These subjects were significantly more likely to report the smoke to the experimenters, and much quicker. Three-quarters of the subjects in this condition reported the smoke to the experimenters within six minutes.
The second and third experimental conditions yielded very different results. The second experimental condition involved one subject and two actors who behaved indifferently toward the smoke. When the subject noticed the smoke, the confederates simply shrugged and returned to their work, making very little conversation. Only 10% of the subjects in this condition reported the smoke. The third experimental condition involved three subjects in the room, who were all naive to the situation. Only 38% of subjects in this condition reported the smoke. Even though the room filled with so much smoke that subjects began coughing and had their vision obscured, they still refrained from reporting it when in group conditions.
The Smoky Room Experiment sheds light on group behaviors in uncomfortable circumstances. Groups of strangers appearing to disregard emergencies is an unfortunately frequent occurrence. The media tends to attribute these situations to apathetic or callous witnesses who simply do not care to help victims. However, Latané and Darley contend that this phenomenon can be better understood by analyzing the relationships and interactions among bystanders, rather than between bystanders and victims. Witnesses of emergencies rely on social cues from other witnesses to inform their actions (or often, lack of action). The observations in their study emphasize the often detrimental power of social pressure. To reframe the results in a more positive light, the Smoky Room Experiment teaches us that sometimes it is important, perhaps even lifesaving, to trust your instincts when something goes awry.