The Bystander Effect

Kitty Genovese was murdered March 13th 1964. On the street, in front of her apartment building, Winston Moseley attacked. Moseley stabbed Kitty several times, and Kitty called out for help. According to witnesses, her scream was loudly heard echoing through the neighbourhood: “Help me. I’ve been stabbed.”
“Help me.”

The New York Times published an article highlighting the murder. According to the Times article, there were 37 witnesses who did not respond to her cries for help. During the attack on the street, a neighbour was heard to call out “Get out of there!” where Moseley ran away. Kitty made her way indoors to the foyer of her apartment, and lay bleeding on the floor. After a few moments of waiting in the car, Moseley realized that no one would do anything in response. So, he followed Kitty to her apartment where he raped Kitty in the foyer, robbed her of 49 dollars, and left her to die. During this attack, a neighbour named Karl Ross opened the door at the top of the foyer stairs, saw Moseley standing over Kitty, and closed the door again. Moseley immediately knew that Ross would do nothing, as Moseley later stated “Because People never do.”

The Times article, reexamined 40 years later, was found to be greatly exaggerated. There were 38 people interviewed, and of those 38 there were maybe 35 who heard her pleas. Of those 35 there were maybe a dozen that actually witnessed the attack. Of that dozen, two had called the police.

New York City, in response to the murder, then instituted the 9-1-1 emergency system.

The story of Kitty Genovese has been over time exaggerated, and in a perverse way romanticized. The Times article reads as if there is some sort of ongoing moral social decay in America. Many have used the incident to illustrate their political views of “human nature” as being apathetic and unwilling to care for others.

Kitty didn’t die alone. Her friend, Sophie, cradled her in the foyer to her dying breath.

The story of apathy and indignation riled up the American public. Two social psychologists, John M. Darley and Bibb Latene conducted and published a study called “Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility” where they coined the title “The Bystander Effect.”

The psychologists invited students to participate in a study, under false pretenses of what was being studied. Each one would be interviewed alone in a room, by someone in a separate room, via microphone and speaker. The person in the other room would feign a seizure, though to the participants the seizure was presented as being real. Then, the response time for the participant was measured, as per how long of a period of time passed before the participant reported the emergency to anyone.

The study showed, across gender, that response time was inversely proportional to how many people were known to the participant of being aware of the emergency. If the participant thought s/he was the only one aware of the emergency, s/he tended to report in a relatively quick manner if s/he chose to report. However, if the participant thought that up to 4 other people knew of the emergency, the response time to report was much longer, and reporting itself was less frequent.
The psychologists identify several key components of the phenomena, one being “diffusion of responsibility.” The more people that are witnessing the emergency, the less likely a person will take action.

Though the story of Kitty Genovese has been misrepresented over time, the phenomena of the Bystander Effect remains. Many other occurrences of equal moral ambiguity on a local level have taken place over time. However, when we look into worldwide atrocities of oppression such as war, genocide, patriarchy, and racism, there are obvious iterations of the Bystander Effect on a much grander scale.

The original New York Times article text can be found here:

and text of the 1968 Darley & Latene study can be found here: