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?
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”