Friday, April 8, 2016

G is for Genovese

As with yesterday, today's A-Z deals with a person - however, unlike yesterday, this person was not a psychologist, but instead inspired an important area of social psychological research.

On March 13, 1964, Catherine "Kitty" Genovese was returning to her apartment in Queens, when she was brutally attacked and murdered in the apartment courtyard.

By Source, Fair Use of copyrighted material in the context of Murder of Kitty Genovese

The case attracted a great deal of media attention, not just because of the facts of the case (that Kitty was attacked completely unprovoked, by a stranger, who returned after the initial attack to complete the crime), but because the inhabitants of the apartment building heard and in some cases saw, the attack. Yet the police were not called until Kitty laying dying in the arms of one of her neighbors. News reports claimed as many as 38 people witnessed the event but did not call the police, some saying later that they "did not want to get involved."

This case was in the media again about two weeks ago, when the perpetrator, Winston Moseley, passed away in prison, at the age of 81. The obituary of Moseley in the New York Times pointed out some of the mistakes in the initial coverage of the event (including coverage by NYT). The attack was not fully witnessed by anyone, though people heard/saw bits and pieces, some drawing incorrect conclusions (such as that this was a lover's quarrel).

However, even if the "38 witnesses" portion is incorrect, some witnesses were aware that something far worse than a lover's quarrel was occuring. One neighbor even shouted at Moseley to "Let that girl alone!" at which time, Moseley left. However, he returned about 10 minutes later to attack Genovese again. This attack lasted about half an hour. Police were not summoned until a few minutes after the attack was finished. Police arrived within minutes, but Genovese died in the ambulance.

This event inspired a great deal of psychological research on why people fail to help others in need. John Darley and Bibb Latané conducted research in 1968, directly inspired by the murder of Kitty Genovese, on the "bystander effect." This research established the seemingly paradoxical phenomenon that you are less likely to be helped by a group of people than one person alone. In their laboratory, they staged an emergency, and measured whether participants alone or in groups (in some cases, groups with confederates) stepped in to help. When the participant was alone and heard the call for help, 70 percent reported the emergency or went to help. In groups, only 40 percent helped in any way.

The reason for this is diffusion of responsibility. When you alone witness someone in need of help, you have 100 percent responsibility; however, if you are in a group of 5 and witness someone in need of help, you only have 20 percent responsibility. Additionally, as I've blogged about recently, we look for cues from others on how we should respond. If other people appear calm and detached, we may think we are misinterpreting the situation (that is, there is no emergency).

In a more innocuous situation, you've probably witnessed something similar in classes. After the teacher/professor has covered a topic and asks if there are any questions, most students say nothing, even if they did not understand; they're looking to others to see if they are also confused. This leads to an annoying situation experienced by most teachers/professors: most students missed a concept on a test or quiz, but no student asked clarifying questions.

Through multiple experiments, changing small elements of the situation, Darley and Latané found that bystanders must go through 5 specific processes in order to help:
  1. Notice something is wrong. Probably the reason most people in Genovese's apartment building did nothing is because, at 3 am, they may not have heard anything, and/or may have grown accustomed to blocking out noises outside their building.
  2. Interpret that situation as an emergency. Some people who heard the attack on Genovese did not realize it was a brutal physical attack, thinking it was instead lovers or drunks arguing.
  3. Feel some degree of responsibility to help. This is where diffusion of responsibility comes into play.
  4. Be able to offer some form of assistance. It's possible that people who overheard the attack knew what it was, but didn't go outside to help for fear of also getting attacked. And in emergency situations, people aren't thinking clearly, and may not consider all potential options (such as calling the police).
  5. Offer their chosen form of assistance.
As you can see, there are many steps where the process can be halted, explaining why people do not help when they should. However, teaching people about this tendency is often all it takes to get someone to take the initiative to help. I can't find the story, unfortunately, but heard a case a while back about a group of psychology students who, after learning about the bystander effect in class, intervened with a student who was attempting suicide. When asked why they had helped, they essentially said they were afraid no one would have taken responsibility otherwise.

Sometimes, knowledge really is power.


  1. This is very interesting. I've read about this case a couple of years ago and always thought it was scary. When I took a first aid class, our teacher reminded us that people will want to help, but they kind of wait for someone to step in first, so we have to be ready to tell people what to do. Just telling someone to call the police will make people react.
    A couple of weeks ago, I've witness a bus on fire on the highway. I was driving so I said to my passenger to call the emergency service. His first reaction was to say that someone probably already called them. I said I didn't care, someone else probably already thought of not calling them for that same reason. He called, they already knew but it gave them an update "the bus is still on fire and there's a lot of traffic".
    So please. Don't wait for someone else to step in. Do something.

  2. I remember learning about this in school. It bothered me then and I always remembered this case.

    Yvonne V

  3. It's really sad when people dont help a person in need for fear of being victimized later!
    I am visiting from the A to Z Challenge Co-host’s Team. Hope you are having a great time reading, writing and networking with co-participants of the A to Z Challenge, Sara. Cheers :)
    Co-Host AJ's wHooligan for the A to Z Challenge 2016