The truth behind the story of Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect

No doubt, you’ve all heard of the bystander effect and the real-life case of Kitty Genovese, murdered in front of 38 witnesses who did nothing to help. But now Rachel Manning, Mark Levine and colleagues say the Kitty Genovese crime didn’t happen that way at all.

They aren’t questioning the principle of the bystander effect – indeed, the Genovese case inspired a rich, persuasive evidence base for the phenomenon whereby being in a group can dilute people’s sense of individual responsibility. Rather, Manning’s group are saying that the Genovese crime has become an urban myth that has biased social psychological research away from studying the beneficial effects that groups could potentially have on helping behaviour.

For instance, take the idea that there were 38 witnesses. After the Genovese court case, Assistant District Attorney Charles Skoller has been quoted as saying “we only found about half a dozen [witnesses] that saw what was going on, that we could use.”

Moreover, there was an ambiguous context to the crime, with one witness saying Genovese and the man who later stabbed her were “standing close together, not fighting or anything”.

Indeed, none of the witnesses reported actually seeing the stabbing. And whereas the myth states that none of the apartment residents overlooking the crime intervened, in fact the murderer felt compelled to abandon his first attack after one of the witnesses shouted at him. This led to the actual murder taking place inside a nearby building where none of the trial witnesses could see. And a sworn affidavit by a former NYPD police officer – at the time a 15-year-old witness – claims his father did make a phone call to the police (bearing in mind this was before any 911 system was in place).

“By debunking the myth and reconsidering the stories that we present in textbooks, we might open up the imaginative space for social psychologists to develop new insights into the problem of promoting helping in emergency situations,” the authors concluded.

Manning R., Levine, M. and Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese Murder and the social psychology of helping: the parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 62, 555-562. (link is to pdf via author’s website).

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Read more about Kitty Genovese in this Psychologist magazine article about psychology’s myths.

25 thoughts on “The truth behind the story of Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect”

  1. If you want to reference the information from the research article (the primary source), you should read the actual article and cite it…

  2. This myth is widely perpetuated by the internet, where a google search seems to bring up more instances of the 38 who did nothing claim. And now in Omar P.l. Moore's review of the Chris Zobel film, Compliance, Moore baldly declares that 70 people watched from their windows and did nothing as Kitty Genovese was murdered. I've no idea if he pulled this number out of thin air or is quoting something he read online, but it illustrates how much people want to believe that it was even worse than it was. By the way, the link to the pdf garners a “not found” page. I found it here:

  3. when I studied psychology many many years ago, not long after this happened, the bystander effect was well explained and we demonstrated this effect in a class.

    It doesn't matter how many people did nothing, 38, 138 or 1, the end would have been the same. There are always people who debunk things after the fact because maybe they want to absolve a relative who did nothing.

    Always identify someone when asking for help because some people are not comfortable joining in to something outside their own bubble, but by pinpointing them, they have a responsibility; just yelling help means that you might not get help.

    1. So,do you consider calling the police doing nothing? How many people do you know would try to intervene against an armed
      man?Two men were stabbed to death in Portland trying to protect a Muslim woman.How many of these people owned a gun?My guess is 0.

  4. July 30, 2013

    The Kitty Genovese by stander effect is true because I had my sixteen year old cousin got stab on the face in an alley in chicago in 1981. And I can not believe that none of the neighbors could hear him scream for his life. They didn't come to his aid or even call the police. The police went looking for him because his parents made a missing person report on their child. They found him dead not far from his home. So, the Kitty Genovese by Stander effect is true.

  5. I don't believe this white wash of this crime and the people who did nothing. I was an 18 yr. old when this happened and I remember there were many more witnesses to be found than a dozen! Just because people refused to come forward doesn't mean they weren't there. It is no mean feat to try and find evidence over 50 years after this crime took place. It reminds me how there are some crimes so heinous that the legend later becomes less than the original happening… the fact that Vlad Teppish, the Impaler, later became known as “Dracula”…….Dracula was a much less horrible story than the original. People tend to WANT to minimise something that doesn't fit in with their idea of what humanity should be. This was an awful crime and people did hear it going on and the police were not called until 30 minutes after the initial attack. Kitty Genovese is still dead because of this and the man who did it is up for parole in November of 2013. He killed and raped other women. Kitty Genovese was not the first. He was able to leave the scene and come back
    and finish her off because no one investigated what went on for 30 minutes.

    – Mr. Koshkin wanted to call the police, but Mrs. Koshkin thought otherwise. “I didn't let him,” she later said to the press. “I told him there must have been 30 calls already.” Miss Andre Picq, a French girl, who lived on the second floor, heard the commotion from her window. “I heard a scream for help, three times,” she later told the court, “I saw a girl lying down on the pavement with a man bending down over her, beating her.”

    – “We thought it was a lover's quarrel!” said one tenant. “Frankly, we were afraid,” said another witness. One woman who didn't want her name used said, “I didn't want my husband to get involved.”

    Your missing a point i believe. Before you use this article read this book first:

    It will explain that it's the issue of “nobody cares” but also of how domestic violence was acceptable.

  7. People heard screams and did nothing to find out why a woman was screaming in the night. One man shouted at the assailant but apparently did not follow up with a police call or with going out to see if the woman was all right. And a retired cop claims his father called the police, as if that might not be a case of wishful thinking. People should be taught they have a moral obligation to investigate such a situation–not to the point of risking injury or playing hero, but at least to opening a window and determining if it was “a lover's quarrel” they were hearing or the bloodcurdling screams of a woman being stabbed to death! The facts of the case continue to support the original NYTimes article's point: people didn't care enough to do enough to prevent a highly preventable murder right under their windows. End of story.

  8. P.S. Also, the fact that the district attorney only found “half a dozen witnesses that we could use” is an issue of legality not a statement of how many witnesses there actually were. Such a statement in no way refutes the original NYTimes article's finding. The DA's job is to convict the perpetrator, not comment on the collective social obligation of bystanders. Those were no doubt the only witnesses that could help the DA convict Winston Moseley (who is strangely unmentioned in the article above), but that doesn't say how many witnesses there were that night who could have done something to prevent the murder from happening in the first place.

  9. This story is not an Internet phenomenon. It was originally published in _The New York Times_ and was well disseminated via the psychology and sociology classrooms on college campuses and universities for decades before the Internet even existed. Based on what I've seen, there doesn't seem to be sufficient evidence to substantially alter the original article's basic conclusion: many neighbors heard something horrible and yet did nothing, or did so little it might as well have been nothing.

  10. Take care when you adopt a “Holier than thou” attitude towards others, One day you may be tested, and end up no better than those you judged.

  11. Can anyone tell me what these people should have done? This is not asked to absolve them, but I'm genuinely wondering, what would realistically have saved her. The police might have should up too late, probably would have showed up to late, right? So what should they have done? Taken the murderer on with a knife? Perhaps this might have been helpful, I don't really know. But I as this question, because it seems that if we're going to talk about not being bystanders, we have to have practical, workable ways to do that.

  12. I don't think anon. is claiming that the murder didn't happen or that there weren't bystanders. They're simply claiming that people misrepresent what actually happened. And considering all the different claims I've seen made about this case, it's hard not to see Anon's point.

  13. @David Charbonneau, in some cases, it probably doesn't matter what the numbers were in establishing whether something happened or not. But in this case, to say that 38 people witnessed what happened and did nothing, is quite different from saying that “half a dozen” saw *something*, in bits and pieces, and that some of those did something (“shouted at him”, called the police).

    also, what Anonymous was saying–if i may generalise–is that the perpetuation of the wrong story, is attributable to the internet (you don't look at all the results of a query to get at the truth; the popular results, in this case, show the hyped up number).

    the new york times can get facts wrong too. in effect, what anon is sayin is that retracting that claim, if it can be done, is hopeless.

  14. How about call the police. What, we shouldnt bother calling bc they may be too late anyway? I wouldn't want to depend on you in a crisis. You would have no doubt been number 39

  15. Anon is correct and David is spectacularly wrong. Just because you read something in the New York Times doesn't automatically make it true, as proven by the author of this piece.

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