06/25/2010 04:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Politics of Social Loafing

In Washington, D.C., it's difficult not to get stunned by the passing of yet another young life to tragic circumstance. Perhaps more stunning is that it could have been avoided for a number of equally tragic reasons, the least of which includes the conventional view that lifeguards were not present. While, at first glance, this may seem like an unfortunate, random incident -- it really is not. FOX5-TV's Roby Chavez reports on the drowning of a 6-year old girl at a local city-run indoor pool in Northeast D.C. known as Turkey Thicket:

The drowning of a 6-year old girl marks a devastating start to the summer in the District. The youngster drowned while swimming at a public pool in Northeast. Many are asking how it could have happened. One witness told FOX 5 she saw the 6-year-old girl smiling as she got on the diving board and jumped in. 'She's on the board, then she jumped into the water. She was under for over five minutes. Finally, a person came up about to jump and she saw this little girl down there under water. That is when she called everybody, 'Somebody is drowning! Somebody is drowning!'' said Nia McClure, who was at the swimming pool during that time.

One critical piece to the mysterious puzzle of this unnamed victim initially rests with the lifeguards: where were they? The obvious questions arise: how many lifeguards? Are city pools adequately staffed? Where was the girl's family? Some reports indicate a lifeguard on station at the deep end diving board. Other reports claim the entire family was there. Investigators are certain to focus on these questions and others. Clearly, negligence of some sort was involved.

But, one can't help but erase the haunting words of witness Nia McClure above: "She was under for over five minutes." Which raises another key question for the witness: where were you? What action did you take while watching a little girl drown for what you described as "five minutes?"

This is a curious question as it strikes to the heart of a disturbing social trend evolving right before our rubber-necking eyes. What's most unnerving is the frequency of it -- this wasn't an isolated example. It's quite common. It is the paralysis of our apathy. A crippling fear or lack of courage triggered by a combination of ignorance and personal detachment. When others are in need of help in group situations, there is a collective tendency towards inaction or low response, as if the situation is not happening or it will go away on its own. It's as simple as the ridiculously long grocery store line no one is willing to complain about or the excessively bad customer service we're afraid to confront. Or: it's the victim of a crime we refuse to help. The drowning 6-year old within striking distance of our assistance. Just a month ago, a grandmother was severely beaten on a D.C. Metro bus while the driver and passengers just looked on.

The suspect got away.

Psychologist Bibb Latane' refers to it as "social loafing." In an analysis entitled The Causes and Consequences of Social Loafing, Latane's observes:

If a person is the target of social forces, increasing the number of other persons diminishes the relative social pressure on each person. If the individual inputs are not identifiable the person may work less hard. Thus if the person is dividing up the work to be performed or the amount of reward he expects to receive, he will work less hard in groups.

Latane and John Harley conducted groundbreaking research on the phenomenon in 1968 and called it "the bystander effect." Psychologist Kendra Cherry summarizes it as the diffusion of responsibility:

There are two major factors that contribute to the bystander effect. First, the presence of other people creates a diffusion of responsibility. Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel as much pressure to take action, since the responsibility to take action is thought to be shared among all of those present.

Social loafing is our national undoing. It eats away at our desire to vote and speak out against injustice. It erodes any sense of urgency. Through pollsters and pundits, we complain of our uncaring public officials, of politicians who are detached and a president who, at times, appears removed and aloof. We want expressions of raw anger and incredulity from those we elect. When President Obama waited weeks before issuing -- his version of -- impassioned reflections on the oil spill, public opinion lambasted him for a perceived lack of affection.

But, aren't elected officials a mere reflection of the constituents they represent? If the general population is loafing, then why not accept the loafing politician? If we're not doing anything about an issue, then why not accept the politician who does nothing about it?

Examining the repercussions of the Senate's current failure to extend an unemployment benefits extension, Washington Post writer Greg Sargent observes in his daily Plum Line blog:

The problem for Dems is that there are no indications whatsoever that the public is outraged by GOP obstruction. Poll after poll shows that the public is convinced Republicans are the ones not making good faith efforts to cooperate. But even though there are indications that the public holds the GOP in low regard, there are no signs that awareness of GOP obstructionism will help Dems at the ballot box, if generic Congressional matchup polls are any indication.

Paralysis by lack of reaction from the larger public is driving Congressional lethargy on key issues such as jobs. If the Senate isn't seeing any public outrage, then what's the hurry? And, really, what is the hurry? Online petitions and server-clogging email protests don't constitute outrage. Picketing from a laptop won't do the trick. A delete button can take care of that.

We actively insulate ourselves from the trouble of others, shake our heads in distant pity as a neighbor's home forecloses or a friend's savings dry up from a prolonged inability to find work. We are becoming bystanders, just sitting there and watching it all drown away.


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