The Economics of the Loveless

Our weekly explainer on economics using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 17, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless demonstrates Diffusion of Responsibility.

Here in Mumbai, one of the highlights of every year for me is the MAMI Fim Festival, which offers a well-curated collection of the best world cinema of the year. This is a week in which I try to do nothing else so that I can immerse myself in movies. I try to think of nothing  but films as I binge-watch four to five of them a day. But economics is a study of human behaviour, and as the old cliche goes, art reveals the human condition. So how could I not think of economics during these seven days?

One of the highlights for me this year was the Russian film Loveless, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Loveless, which won the Jury Prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is a film about a separating Russian couple who fight about their son early in the film. Neither of them want him. The boy overhears the conversation and breaks down. Soon, he disappears. The rest of the film is what happens to those left behind.

It is a bleak film, for reasons that go beyond its sparse Russian landscape, with its protagonists revealed as cold atomic beings whose warmth for others is just necessary theatre, as much for their own sake as for others. It moved me a lot — and it also reminded me of a psychological phenomenon that economists know all about: Diffusion of Responsibility.

Here’s one definition of Diffusion of Responsibility: “[A] sociopsychological phenomenon whereby a person is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when others are present. Considered a form of attribution, the individual assumes that others either are responsible for taking action or have already done so.”

Put simply, when multiple people are responsible for something, they all tend to leave the hard work to the others.

The textbook example of this is the famous Kitty Genovese murder case. Genovese, a 28-year-old woman, was hacked to death in 1964 outside her Apartment building in Queens, New York. The case came to attention after a famous piece by the New York Times that 37 people saw or heard the murder taking place — and none of them called the police.

Social psychologists attribute this inaction to the Bystander Effect, and one important element of that is Diffused Responsibility. All the witnesses to the murder assumed that someone else would call the cops. Had they been alone, they might have done so themselves. But they left it to others.

A banal example of this cropped up multiple times during this MAMI festival. Some of the halls where I saw movies had exit doors below the screen, and if someone left one of those doors open, the light flooded in after the film started and disturbed the top few rows of people. Everyone was affected by it; but each time, for a significant period, no one took the initiative to go and close the door themselves. (I regret to inform you that I was one of those who did not get up. I am half-Bengali, and my genes do not permit such vigorous action when other non-Bengalis are around to do the menial work.)

I remember another example from my blogging days from the last decade. My blog India Uncut was doing well at the time, and a couple of times I joined up with bloggers I admired to try our hand at a group blog. But while I did about 8000 posts on India Uncut itself between 2004 and 2009, I did only a handful for the group blogs I joined. This was not out of lack of goodwill: I simply left it to others, as did all my fellow group members. (I now use IU mainly to archive published pieces, which shows that even solo blogs can languish, alas.)

Diffused Responsibility might also explain a part of the Tragedy of the Commons — though the incentives at play are are adequate explanation by themselves.

The lesson here is that if you ever take part in a group activity, you should always assign specific responsibility for it to one or two people. Otherwise, well-meaning as the people in the group might be, they’ll tend to leave the heavy lifting to others.

While Diffusion of Responsibility is mostly used to explain our behaviour while in groups of three or more, I think it also explains the situation in Loveless. Neither parent loved or wanted the kid, or even cared enough about him to know his friends or his hobbies. The poor lad was exposed early to a fundamental truth about what it is to be human, and presumably chose to opt out. Even among just those two people, the responsibility was diffused, and things fell apart.

In the unlikely event that Loveless plays at a theatre near you, I recommend that you go and watch it. But if you make that plan with a group of friends, please assign one person to take the effort to buy the tickets — or it may not happen.