On March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was savagely murdered in plain sight or within earshot of 38 neighbors and residents of her apartment building in Queens, New York. Genovese’s death caused a media storm in the U.S. and around the world not because either she or her killer were famous but because the murder had been witnessed by so many people who made little or no attempt to stop it from happening nor to summon help for the same purpose despite, tragically, having a series of opportunities to do so.
Kitty Genovese was 28 years old when she returned home from work at around 3 a.m. that night. Heading across the street from her parked car to her apartment building, Genovese spotted someone trailing her and quickened her step, but her attacker pounced and stabbed her in the back. Genovese screamed that she had been stabbed, and lights went on in the surrounding apartments. Genovese must have been hopeful. A man’s voice rang through the courtyard of her building, “Leave that girl alone!” and the attacker briefly ran away. Genovese cried out again, “Please help me God. I have been stabbed” — but no one did anything, and the man who would become her murderer returned to stab her again and then raped her. A neighbor opened his door in the midst of the second attack but promptly closed it, saying later, “I didn’t want to get involved.” After returning for a third time, the murderer attacked Kitty Genovese again then left her for dead. An ambulance was finally called, but she died on the way to the hospital.
The ensuing media maelstrom was impossible to ignore, but for two American, Ivy League-educated social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latané, it sparked an interest that led to groundbreaking experimental research in what came to be known as the “bystander effect.”
According to psychologist, author and St. Thomas University counseling professor Lawrence Rubin, the phenomenon “[s]imply stated, refers to the likelihood that bystanders to a crime or wrongdoing are likely to resist taking action if they believe others will do so.” In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. The bystander effect has been explained in a number of ways. Ambiguity is a factor, which happens when multiple witnesses rely on each other to interpret confusing, unfamiliar circumstances, like whether or not someone needs help or how to help, as opposed to an individual, who has only him- or herself to decide what to do. Sometimes there is an assumption that if no one in a group is responding it must mean that no emergency exists. The group dynamic can paralyze in a way individual responsibility does not.
Another explanation for the bystander effect is cohesiveness, a theory that the more well-acquainted and familiar witnesses to an emergency event are, the more likely it is they will help, so a group of strangers is disinclined to work together to offer assistance.
Perhaps most significant in the bystander effect is diffusion of responsibility, which means the presence of others makes one feel less personally responsible for responding to events. People tend to assume that someone else will provide the necessary help, maybe someone more courageous than themselves, especially when there are many people available to help.
Darley and Latané, with other colleagues, developed a series of experiments in which participants, either alone or with others, were presented with a staged emergency situation in which a person appeared to be in danger of harm or death. The experiments found time and time again that a participant’s likelihood to intervene on behalf of the potential “victim” was affected by whether he or she was the sole witness or one of a group of witnesses. One experiment, for example, was staged around a woman in distress behind a curtain that divided a room. Seventy percent of people who were alone when they heard the woman moaning after what sounded like a fall pulled back the curtain to check on her or called out to her. When there were other participants present, only 40 percent of observers offered help of any kind.
Many people are intrigued by the bystander effect. ABC television’s news division developed “What Would You Do?” an entire show that revolves around offering unwitting strangers moral dilemmas and ethical challenges staged by actors to test the strangers’ reactions. How well those unwitting strangers respond to the challenges varies from week to week, but they frequently defy the theory of the bystander effect and do the right thing, even when there are many people around.
We were intrigued, too.