By November 23, 2013 11 Comments

The murder of Kitty Genovese and bystander apathy

The case of Catherine ‘Kitty’ Genovese has become the quintessential example of the bystander effect. Murdered in 1964 whilst numerous neighbours heard her screams yet did nothing, it led to the investigation of social apathy and the coining of the term bystander effect. This gruesome case, in which the neighbours took heavy flak for not helping the dying woman, engaged psychologists with the idea of diffusion of responsibility, but how strong is bystander effect and how much blame can really be attached to those who witnessed her death?


Winston Moseley

Kitty Genovese was near her home in Queens when she was attacked and murdered by Winston Moseley in 1964. Her ordeal was not a short one. Early on the morning of March 13th Genovese was returning home from work and, as she was walking to her apartment, a mere 100 feet away she was approached and attacked by Moseley. She ran across the parking lot but Moseley caught up with her and stabbed her twice in the back. She screamed ‘Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!’ Her cries were heard by neighbours, with one, Robert Mozer, shouting out ‘Let that girl alone!’. Moseley ran off, and Genovese dragged herself close to her apartment building, but was now out of sight from anyone who had heard the initial attack. Moseley, who witnesses had seen drive away, now returned in a change of clothes and a large brimmed hat to disguise himself. He discovered Genovese in the alley outside her apartment building and proceeded to stab, rape and rob her. Minutes after the final attack a neighbour, Karl Ross, called the police. They arrived on the scene promptly, but Genovese died on the way to the hospital.                                   

Two weeks later the New York Times revealed the terrible truth – 38 people had heard the dying woman’s screams for help yet they had done nothing. This shocked the public (and psychologists alike) as to how so many people could fail to act after hearing the cries of a woman being attacked outside. How could the whole neighbourhood be so fully aware of the horrific crime taking place yet not feel the responsibility to do something? The New York Times led with the headline ‘Thirty Eight who saw murder but didn’t call police’ with the article centering around a quote from one witness who said he had seen it all but didn’t want to get involved.

All this coverage led to the investigation into what is now known as the bystander effect. Darley & Latane began research into this field and surprisingly found that the more bystanders there are the less likely the individual is to take action. They concluded that numerous reasons exist for this apathy, mainly that others are less likely to help a victim if others are watching and that if nobody else is taking action they feel like they have less responsibility to do something themselves. The most resonating answer was that when there was a large group of people, individuals commonly thought that there was somebody in the group that would be more experienced or have the relevant skills to help someone, thus removing from them any feeling of responsibility for helping and admonishing any possible feelings of guilt over inaction.

As time moved on however, the original newspaper report has come under scrutiny. Of all the neighbours who heard the attack, only two were aware she had been stabbed, with Karl Ross calling the police after the second attack. The number of neighbours who heard her cries was originally put at 38, but this has now been significantly lowered. A 2007 study looked back on the case and, as well as disputing the numbers, also found that there was no evidence that people witnessed the attack in the entirety and that those who did hear something remained inactive. On the contrary, with the attacks taking place in two different places it would have been almost impossible for one person to witness the complete event, and those who did hear her screams did take action. Joseph Fink, after witnessing the first attack called the police and reported a stabbing, with a girl who then seemed to be okay moving off to her apartment. He didn’t go out to help, but most likely thought the police would respond to his call. However, for whatever reason, they didn’t, with the call being given a low priority. Many were not aware a murder was taking place, at 3.15 in the morning and being a cold night towards the end of winter, many people had all their windows shut and curtains pulled. The noises outside were not so clear to them, with many thinking it was a lover’s tiff or drunks leaving the local bar. Add to this that in the second attack Genovese’s lung was punctured its highly unlikely she would have been able to scream at any great volume.

Although the events have been called into question the bystander effect remains a robust theory, and one that can be seen in many everyday occurrences. Have you ever witnessed an accident and stood by waiting for, or allowing others, to help? Don’t be too concerned, it’s natural, it happens to us all and there is an explanation.

YouTube video “The Bystander Effect:The Death of Kitty Genovese”

Rob HutchinsonAbout: Rob Hutchinson (48 Posts)

I've been teaching English in Chile for the last 4 years but studied Psychology at Manchester University. My interests include journalism, sports and I love to travel whenever possible.

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11 Comments on "The murder of Kitty Genovese and bystander apathy"

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  1. Fortunately, being fully aware of the diffusion of responsibility effect should make us more able to fight it.

  2. Mathy Kyte says:

    Quite a story that. The police seemed to ignore the first report that could’ve saved her.

  3. Yes, I have heard recent criticism that the concern over the Genevese case is the result of interpreting data to support a bias.

  4. It’s a classic, people arguing to wheedle their way out of it: Oh, I heard someone scream, but I didn’t know she was being stabbed to death! And a classic of democracy is to have everybody waiting for someone else to take initiative and take the flack. The crowd then will hail the survivor. Humankind as the pinnacle of creation.

  5. Read the bio of the British talk show host on who’s US program she outed a white supremacist as 1/8th black about 2 weeks ago… As a young girl she was attacked in public by a man trying to rape her, and had to fight him off in a running battle around a neighborhood as people watched until someone was willing to intervene… At the point of intervention, he had already succeeded in several stages of the act…

    I had an uncle who got a burst appendix, and took over a day to bleed out in an apartment with walls that were not sound proof. We know he spent the entire time calling out for help, unable to move enough to reach a nearby phone… We know that, because the people who heard him and did nothing told the police they called to ‘deal with the smell’ after he’d died…

    And I remember there was a case in the 70s of a woman who was attacked and raped, them dismembered, in broad daylight on a public street in San Francisco. She lived – minus all of her limbs. There was only finally a protest when her attacker was set to be parolled back into the neighborhood in the 80s, and she spoke out again, finally getting support…

    This sort of thing – people not lifting a finger – sadly happens. I don’t know how often, or if these are just memorable aberrations. I hope its just how horrid they are making them stick out in memory. I hope they are unusual.

  6. Ps: the linked article actually goes on to note that in the murder of Ms. Genovese, they have since found that only two of the people they thought were bystanders could have actually seen or heard the events.

  7. Nicola Smith says:

    This reminds me of something else I saw, an experiment studying the effects of social/group pressure to conform. They put someone in a room with a bunch of actors and then pumped smoke under the door. When the actors did nothing, neither did that one person. The instinct to conform to group behavior was enough to override survival instincts. One person did take action, though. The less part of the group one feels, the more likely we are to take action on our own initiative. I can see how ‘the bystander effect’ is similar – even knowing its influence, when something strange happens I find myself automatically looking to those around me for cues on how to behave.

  8. David Gosser says:

    Phil Ochs wrote song Small Circle of Friends after he heard this news. 

  9. Inge Lewis says:

    Self preservation is one of the big factors what keeps most humans from getting involved, then some never give it a thought and jump right in to help and even loose their lives over their compassionate act.

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