“Anger is directed, not toward the crime, nor the criminal, but toward those who failed to halt the criminal’s actions.”
The above quote from The Nation (1964) was written in a piece covering the 1964 murder of New York resident Kitty Genovese. This case was mentioned briefly in our textbook in the section covering the bystander effect. The mention of this case piqued my interest and compelled me to look into it further.
My research into this topic initially led me to the original March 27 1964 New York Times article entitled “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police”. The article detailed a crime in which 38 citizens (one more citizen than the title of the article implies) did nothing as they watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks over the course of more than half an hour.
The New York Times, March 27, 1964
By 1964 standards, this story went viral. Versions of the story appeared in major newspapers and print outlets around the country and the world, including Life Magazine, the Los Angeles Free Press, and Rolling Stonemagazine. The publicity resulting from this case prompted social psychologists to investigate what was termed the “bystander intervention effect.” The bystander effect refers to the finding that the more people who are present when help is needed, the less likely any one of them is to provide assistance (Lurigio, 2015). While reading more details about the Genovese murder, I wondered how the bystander effect came into play in this particular case. The murder happened at 3:15 in the morning. It was reported by the New York Times that the 38 witnesses to whom they referred were residents of surrounding apartments that either heard screams, saw the actual attack or witnessed a man fleeing the scene. The question for me that came to mind was, if in accordance with the definition of the bystander effect, how did these witnesses know how many people were “present” when the crime was occurring? Was it assumed by the individual witnesses that others were hearing and seeing the identical details of the scene? Based on the definition in our textbook, it seems that the correct categorization of this would be a diffusion of responsibility. This occurs when a person doesn’t feel responsible to act because they feel as if others will do so (Gruman, 2017). This effect can occur with the witness have zero perception about the presence of other bystanders. Some articles written soon after the crime occurred even suggested that there was not only a diffusion of responsibility for helping but there was also a diffusion of any potential blame for not acting as it was possible that somebody, unperceived, had already initiated helping action (Darley, 1968).
My expanding interest in this case led me to the documentary “The Witness” in which Bill Genovese, the brother of Kitty, leads his own examination into the events surrounding his sister’s murder as well as a search for any of the reported 38 witnesses that might still be alive.
“The Witness” documentary
During his investigation, he learned that the original New York Times story was significantly embellished in an effort to make the story more sensational. The number of witnesses to the crime was greatly exaggerated and classifying them as “eye witnesses” was categorically erroneous. The documentary is fascinating not only from the vantage point of considering the bystander effect but also how a singular event, whether perceived or accurate, exaggerated or precise, insignificant or major can affect the lives of individuals who are unaware of how many other people are affected by the same incident.
Lurigio, A. J. (2015). Crime narratives, dramatizations, and the legacy of the kitty genovese murder: A half century of half truths. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 42(7), 782-789. doi:10.1177/0093854814562954
Gruman, J. A., Schneider, F. W., & Coutts, L. (2017). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. SAGE.
Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4), 377-383. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1037/h0025589