Kitty Genovese's murder on March 13, 1964 shocked the world.
While the 29-year old bar manager was returning to her home in the Kew Gardens section of Queen's, New York, she was brutally attacked and killed. Her assailant, Winston Moseley, was a serial offender who would later confess to two other murders. In describing the murder, the New York Times reported that thirty-eight of Genovese's neighbours had watched the killing but did nothing. The Times article was quick to emphasize that "Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead." Later investigations would show that very few of the thirty-eight neighbours who had heard some part of the attack were really aware of what was going on (many thought it was just a lovers' quarrel). Only one eyewitness would admit to even seeing a knife.
Still, the idea that Kitty Genovese's murder was fully observed by numerous neighbours who "didn't want to get involved" quickly took on a life of its own. Public outrage against the "Bad Samaritans" who allegedly watched and did nothing was fierce. One Times letter writer insisted that the names and addresses of the delinquent thirty-eight be published in the paper to expose them to the world. The years following the Genovese murder and Moseley's conviction saw more than a thousand books, articles, plays, and several television movies based on the tragedy. Headlines about the callous, unfeeling New Yorkers who ignored Kitty Genovese's dying screams led to wide-scale soul-searching over declining social values and the dangers of urban life.
In a later critique of the Times coverage, Jim Rasenberger stressed that only six or seven people were actual eyewitnesses, not the thirty-eight that the Times originally claimed. When the New York Times later came under fire for misrepresenting the actual facts of the murder, they stood by their version of events. In a 2004 interview, Times editor, A. M. Rosenthal went on record as stating that "there may have been 38, there may have been 39, but the whole picture, as I saw it, was very affecting.” Rosenthal also wrote his own book on the case titled Thirty-Eight Witnesses.
Whatever the actual facts, a brutal murder did take place which had a profound impact on New York City life. Publicity over the Genovese murder and other high-profile crimes helped spur the implementation of 911 as a universal help number by 1968. Community activists responding to the murder also organized the first Neighbourhood Watch program, eventually leading to the formation of chapters across the country. Political pressure later led to the passage of "bad samaritan" laws in some jurisdictions (with limited success).
Academic psychologists took a keen interest in the murder and what it seemed to indicate about human nature. In 1968, social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley launched a series of classic experiments investigating bystander intervention in emergencies. Using New York University students, they varied experimental conditions under controlled circumstances to investigate factors that seemed to increase the likelihood of bystanders helping. Simulated emergencies ranged from a theft to smoke filling the interview room to cries of distress from an adjoining room. In a finding that they would later term the bystander effect, Darley and Latane found that individuals were slower to respond as the number of others that the participants thought were present increased. Participants who were alone in a room during the simulated emergency were far more likely to respond and response time was significantly slower in groups ranging from two to six participants in size. The only other factor that seemed to affect responding dealt with the size of the participant's home community, i.e., participants who grew up in large cities were less likely to respond than participants who grew up in smaller towns (make of that what you will).
Essentially, responsibility for acting in emergencies diminishes as more people are involved in the decision-making process (hence the term diffusion of responsibility). Latane and Darley suggested that people often looked to the people around them to see how they react to the emergency. If other bystanders seem unconcerned, then people are less likely to react (their term for this was pluralistic ignorance). Participants often found themselves in a classic approach-avoidance conflict (another of those pesky social psychology terms) in which they were torn between a desire to act and not wanting to appear foolish by jumping to conclusions. The researchers also proposed specific decision-making models to increase the likelihood of emergency responding: notice the incident, interpret it as an emergency, decide on level of personal responsibility to intervene, carry out the required behaviour. Variations on this model have since been incorporated into standard first-aid training classes
Despite the controversy surrounding the Latane-Darley findings, questions as to the actual prevalence of "bystander apathy", and the failure by later researchers to replicate these results consistently, the bystander effect has become one of the most well-recognized concepts in modern psychology. As such, it has been taught to introductory psychology students ever since (myself included). The spectre of Kitty Genovese is often invoked in newspaper accounts of similar crimes in which bystanders failed to intervene. Latane and Darley documented several of these accounts in a 1970 book that they later wrote on their research.
So, next time you're witnessing someone in danger, don't look to others for guidance. Take the lead and, possibly, save a life.