Somebody else's problem

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Somebody else's problem (also known as someone else's problem or SEP) is a psychological effect where people choose to dissociate themselves from an issue that may be in critical need of recognition. Such issues may be of large concern to the population as a whole but can easily be a choice of ignorance by an individual. Author Douglas Adams' comedic description of the condition, which he ascribes to a physical "SEP field," has helped make it a generally recognized phenomenon. Somebody Else's Problem has been used to capture public attention on matters that may have been overlooked and has less commonly been used to identify concerns that an individual suffering symptoms of depression should ignore. This condition has also been employed as trivial shorthand to describe factors that are "out of scope" in the current context.


Various areas of psychology and philosophy of perception are concerned with the reasons individuals often ignore issues that are of relative or critical importance. Optimism bias tends to reduce issues of subjectivity due to the tendency to have thought processes that are overly positive: "Overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations — make us less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen or open a savings account, and more likely to bet the farm on a bad investment."[1]

Where multiple individuals simultaneously experience the same stimulus, diffusion of responsibility and/or the bystander effect may release individuals from the need to act, and if no-one from the group is seen to act, each individual may be further inhibited by conformity. The murder of Kitty Genovese, who on March 13, 1964, was stabbed and killed outside of her apartment building, has classically been given as an example: "Most of the evidence suggests that at least half a dozen-and perhaps many more-of her 30 or so neighbours heard the events but failed to come to her aid. Most didn't even bother to call the police."[2] Subsequent research has questioned media reports of the killing and characterized it as "repeatedly misrepresented."[3]

When individuals are exposed to a multitude of messages about pressing matters of concern, information overload (now also known as "information fatigue syndrome"[4]) may be a result. In Joseph Ruff's article "Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions" Ruff states, "Once capacity is surpassed additional information becomes noise and results in a decrease in information processing and decision quality."[5] A student who has spent the entire semester socializing instead of studying would find themselves in a state of information overload the day before a final exam, for example.

There may also be a tendency to argue that since a proposed solution does not fit a problem entirely then the entire solution should be discarded. This is an example of a perfect solution fallacy. "This fallacy is often employed by those who believe no action should be taken on a particular issue and use the fallacy to argue against any proposed action."[6]

However, taking responsibility for negative events that are outside an individual's control is related to depression and learned helplessness, particularly in adolescents.[7] Part of the solution is to help the individual to realistically assign a proportion of responsibility to herself/himself, parents and others (step I in the RIBEYE cognitive behavioral therapy problem-solving method).[7][8][9]

Politics and economics[edit]

French president Nicolas Sarkozy warned the U.S. Congress that "The [decline of the] dollar cannot remain someone else's problem. If we are not careful, monetary disarray could morph into economic war. We would all be victims."[10]

The New York Times said that when the Shah of Iran was exiled in 1979 he became "someone else's problem" from the point of view of President Carter's administration.[11]

In the election of 2006, the Swedish Centre Party used the phrase "nånannanism" (someone-else-ism) as a catchword for their campaign.

In an interview by Bloomberg News on Dec 15, 2014, on domestic politics Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán stated that "Hungarians welcomed illiberal democracy; the fact that in English it means something else is not my problem," which is an indirect reference to SEP.[12]

Environment and public protection[edit]

British politician Peter Ainsworth acknowledges that "climate change can seem huge, complex, remote and someone else's problem."[13] An example which contributes to the effects of climate change can be viewed within Anthony Penna’s book “The Human Footprint: A Global Environmental History” in which Penna states, “Unregulated local industries continue to pollute the soil, water, and air, while the depletion of local wood reserves for fuel degrades the forests."[14] Such environmental destruction can be viewed as someone else's problem since many individuals are unaware of unregulated destruction taking place and when this fact is discovered they may feel as if there is nothing that they themselves can do to contribute to ceasing this process- ultimately linking it to the condition- diffusion of responsibility.

Douglas Adams was himself concerned about such failures to recognise the need for action and, with Mark Carwardine, published the book Last Chance to See, which highlighted endangered animal species. This can coincide with the quotation, “Nature is 'it' not 'thou',” which sums up the contemporary trend that many individuals/populations have “othered” themselves from the environment resulting in devastating levels of destruction to the land and mass extinction rates.[15]

Professor John Wettlaufer of Yale University has apparently observed that it is very important for physicists working outside the mainstream "to have a genuine interest in learning about someone else's problem." However, he admitted that "not many people want to do this."[16]


The sub-goals of programmers working on a shared artifact "can be deferred to the degree that they become what is known amongst professional programmers as an 'S.E.P.' – somebody else's problem."[17] This can be considered an aspect of social loafing where, in some instances while working as a team, individuals become less productive because they feel less responsible for the final product.

Unix became popular because it was developed at Bell Labs where "profits were somebody else's problem," so there was no reason not to share the source code with universities.[18] This means that Bell Labs were not concerned with making Unix a profitable computer operating system, instead making it conveniently accessible to university campuses.


Within the novel Life, the Universe and Everything of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy science fiction series, his character Ford Prefect describes somebody else's problem as:

An SEP is something we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem.... The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.

The narration then explains:

The technology involved in making something properly invisible is so mind-bogglingly complex that 999,999,999 times out of a billion it's simpler just to take the thing away and do without it....... The “Somebody Else's Problem field” is much simpler, more effective, and “can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery.”

This is because it relies on people's natural predisposition not to see anything they don't want to, weren't expecting, or can't explain.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sharot, Tali (2011-05-28). "The Optimism Bias". Time Health. Retrieved May 28, 2011. 
  2. ^ Lilienfeld; et al. (2011). Psychology: From Inquiry to Understanding. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc. pp. 564–565. 
  3. ^ Manning, R.; Levine, M; Collins, A. (September 2007). "The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping: The parable of the 38 witnesses". American Psychologist. 62 (6): 555–562. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.62.6.555. PMID 17874896. 
  4. ^ Goulding, Anne (2001). "Information Poverty or Overload?". Journal of Librarianship and Information Science. doi:10.1177/096100060103300301. 
  5. ^ Nguyen, Steve. [In Joseph Ruff's article "Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions" Ruff states, "Once capacity is surpassed additional information becomes noise and results in a decrease in information processing and decision quality." "Information Overload- When Information Becomes Noise"] Check |url= value (help). Workplace Psychology: People at Work. Retrieved May 18, 2011. 
  6. ^ Morley, Stephen. "Perfect Solution". Retrieved October 1, 2005. 
  7. ^ a b John F. Curry; Karen C. Wells, David A. Brent, Gregory N. Clarke, Paul Rohde, Anne Marie Albano, Mark A. Reinecke, Nili Benazon, John S. March (2000-03-15). "Treatment for Adolescents with Depression Study (TADS)" (PDF). Cognitive Behavior Therapy Manual – Introduction, Rationale, and Adolescent Sessions. Duke University Medical Center (published 2005). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2014-03-01. Retrieved 2015-03-24. 
  8. ^ Robin Zagurski; Denise Bulling, Robin Chang (2005). "Nebraska Psychological First Aid Training Program" (pdf). University of Nebraska Public Policy Center. Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  9. ^ Rohde P, Feeny NC, Robins M (2005). "Characteristics and Components of the TADS CBT Approach". Cogn Behav Pract. 12 (2): 186–97. doi:10.1016/S1077-7229(05)80024-0. PMC 1894655Freely accessible. PMID 17581639. 
  10. ^ Krishna Guha (2007-11-09). "The world's currency could become a US problem". Financial Times. Retrieved 2008-06-07. 
  11. ^ Marvin Zonis (1988-11-06). "Someone Else's Problem". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-07. 
  12. ^ "Hungary on Path to Shed Junk Grade and Shield Forint". Bloomberg News. 2014-12-15. Retrieved 2014-12-15. 
  13. ^ Lois Rogers (2007-04-23). "Climate change: Why we don't believe it". New Statesman. Retrieved 2008-06-06. 
  14. ^ Penna, N. Anthony (2010). The Human Footprint: A Global Environmental History. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 107. 
  15. ^ Townsend, K. Patricia (2009). Environmental Anthropology: From Pigs to Policies Second Edition. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc. p. 98. 
  16. ^ Johnston, Hamish (2008-03-11). "Physicists and climate change". Physics World. American Physical Society Category Archives: APS March Meeting 2008. Bristol BS1 6HG, UK: IOP Publishing Limited, Institute of Physics. Archived from the original on 2014-03-04. Retrieved 2015-03-24. 
  17. ^ Blackwell, Alan F.; Arnold, H.L. (January 1997). "Simulating a Software Project: The PoP Guns go to War". Proceedings of the 9th Annual Meeting of the Psychology of Programming Interest Group: 53–60. Archived from the original on 2008-10-25. Retrieved 2015-03-24. 
  18. ^ Negus, Christopher (2006-05-10). "Linux's roots in Unix (part 1, chapter 1, section 3)". Fedora 5 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 Bible. Bible (Book 327). New York: Wiley. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-4717-5491-6. OCLC 69746564. Archived from the original on 2013-12-13. Retrieved 2015-03-25 – via TechTarget.