Social Psychology – The Myth of Kitty Genovese and Bystander Apathy

For several decades, Kitty Genovese has been famous to many psychology students, psychologists and anyone interested in psychology. Kitty was an American woman who became famous for her murder. She was stabbed to death in New York. What was so interesting about her murder was the reaction of her neighbours, which prompted the naming of a psychological phenomenon – the bystander effect or “Genovese syndrome.”

On March 13th, 1964, Kitty was driving home around 3.15am. She parked about 30 metres from her front door. As she walked to her door, she was approached by Winston Moseley. Moseley overtook her and stabbed her twice in the back. Kitty screamed. Her screams were heard by several neighbours. But it was a cold night, many had their windows shut and few recognized it as a cry for help. One of the neighbours did shout at Moseley, “Let that girl alone”. Moseley ran away and Kitty made her way to her apartment. Kitty was seriously injured, in full sight of her neighbours, but no one helped her.

Some called to the police, but it was not given a high priority, as it was thought she was “only” beaten up. Witnesses observed Moseley get into his car and drive away. He then returned ten minutes later and found Kitty barely conscious at the back of the building. Out of sight, he attached her again, stabbing her several more times. She tried to defend herself, as was shown by knife wounds on her hands. He sexually assaulted her as she lay dying. He also stole money from her and left her to die. The attacks spanned over half an hour.

A few minutes later, a witness did call the police. The police and ambulance arrived, but she died on the way to the hospital.

The media then reported that 38 people had witnessed or heard her attack. The New York Times printed an article – “Thirty Eight who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” This led to a media frenzy and much psychological research. What had possessed these witnesses to do NOTHING whilst Kitty was being stabbed and murdered?

The murder of Kitty also led to psychological research. This psychological phenomenon became known as bystander apathy, the bystander effect or Genovese syndrome. It is basically a phenomenon where someone is less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when other people are present and able to help, than they would if they were alone.

An individual alone is more likely to intervene if someone needs help – bystander intervention. In 1968, John Darley and Bibb Latane studied the bystander effect in the laboratory. They left a participant alone in a room and told them to communicate with other participants via an intercom. He/she was actually just talking to a recording. During the study, one participant suddenly pretends to have a seizure. They found that the amount of time taken before the person seeks help varies according to how many other participants were perceived to be around. In other words, the more people we think are also witnessing an event, the slower the person will be in dealing with the situation themselves. So if you have a large group of people observing an emergency, we would expect they would be less likely to help – we expect others to do the helping!

Other examples of this bystander effect have been shown. In 1972, Wolfgang Friedmann was murdered in broad day light and bled to death. In 1995, Deletha Word died after witnesses did not stop her attacker. James Bulger was also another well-publicized case, where James was abducted in a busy shopping centre.

Why does this happen? There is another psychological idea of diffusion of responsibility, which leads to social loafing. People may assume that others in the group are better qualified to help than they are eg. A doctor, a police officer etc, so they are not needed. They may not want to “lose face” in front of others in the crowd, when a “superior” helper offers assistance instead. Another suggestion is that people look at the reactions of others in a crowd to see how they are reacting to the emergency situation. They use this to decide whether to intervene. However, if everyone else in the crowd is doing the same things – is anyone going to help?

So what do you do if you are the one being attacked? The best suggestion is to pick a specific person in the crowd and ask them to “call the police” so they know it is THEIR responsibility.

So back to Kitty. Her death led to a reform in the New York Police Department’s telephone reporting system. It led to a lot of media coverage on how we respond to emergencies. It led to a lot of psychological research. Kitty’s Death also led to the formation of Neighbourhood Watch Schemes. So Kitty’s death did lead to some good and useful outcomes.

However, new research has suggested that Kitty’s murder was not as reported. There were actual only 12 witnesses, not the reported 38. In 2007, three British Researchers have investigated this murder again. Manning, Levine and Collins have disputed this iconic event. They have found no evidence of the presence of 38 witnesses, by examining documents from the time. They have not been able to find evidence that witnesses remained inactive.

The story of Kitty Genovese has become an urban myth or modern parable, telling us about coping with emergency helping. The research of Manning, Levine and Collins will be an interested addition to all psychology students and teachers alike – new textbooks out soon no doubt!!!!!!