Canadian Rental Service

Editorial: September 2011

Patrick Flannery   

Features Business Intelligence

I read once about a psychology experiment where a test subject (probably some hapless undergraduate student) was put in a room and told to fill out some meaningless paperwork.

Assuming someone else will help the industry is a sure path to stagnation.

I read once about a psychology experiment where a test subject (probably some hapless undergraduate student) was put in a room and told to fill out some meaningless paperwork. While he worked, the researchers started piping smoke into the room through an air vent: first a little, then gradually increasing the amount. Then they watched the student to see what he would do.

His reaction was entirely predictable. He noticed the smoke in a startled manner, and watched in alarm as it increased. He fidgeted uncertainly for a while, then went to inspect the vent. Finding nothing helpful, he left the room to find someone to tell about the problem.

Then the researchers tried the same trick, but this time on a room full of many students. The difference was fascinating. What they found was that the subjects were amazingly reluctant to react. They would visibly notice the smoke, but then studiously ignore it while the room filled up. Only rare individuals would break out of the general apathy and take some action, but even this took much longer than it did with the lone subject.


This experiment has been repeated again and again, generating the same results with various numbers of people and various kinds of emergencies, including emergencies where the crowd has reason to believe someone has been hurt. It appears to be a scientific fact that people in a crowd are much less likely to take action to resolve a problem than a person acting alone. Psychologists call it the Bystander Effect.

Even more interesting were the post-experiment interviews in which researchers asked people why they did nothing. The most common response was that they thought or hoped that someone else would do something, or that they thought nothing needed to be done because no one else was doing anything. The researchers called this effect diffusion of responsibility.

I think industries, which are really crowds of individual companies, can suffer from the Bystander Effect. Every business owner feels there are some elements of the business environment that should be changed: taxes too high, labour hard to find, government regulations nonsensical, insufficient investment in infrastructure – these are just a few examples. There is often little individual business owners can do to address issues of this kind but, in association, they can push for change. Yet only a rare few individuals get actively involved with the effort to change and improve things. These are the industry leaders, and they are usually the ones driving the relevant associations, while others stand numbly by, waiting for something to happen.

In the Canadian Rental Association, Canada’s rental operators have one of the most energetic and professionally run industry associations I have seen in 15 years of involvement with numerous different business sectors. Yet I sometimes hear concern about the level of participation in its elections. Considering what a tiny investment in time and effort it is to vote, and how important voting is to the active life of an association, this is unfortunate and mystifying.

There is nothing worse than trade magazine editors who take a hectoring or lecturing tone with their readers, and I don’t want to be one of those. You know best how to allocate your time, and you know best whether participating in the CRA reaps benefits for your business. My only hope is, if you do not vote, it is because of your conscious decision about time allocation or some other factor, and not a manifestation of the Bystander Effect.

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