The Bystander Effect: Kitty Genovese
Updated: May 13
SPOILER ALERT: If you aren’t familiar with Kitty’s case and don’t want a high-level reveal of what happened in the original investigation or in the re-investigation 50 years later, stop here. There are books, documentaries, and articles you can find online if you’d like to experience the full story before reading about how it influenced criminal investigations and reporting.
I was introduced to Kitty via Amazon's algorithm–it thought I’d be interested in The Witness. The short description piqued my interest and did leave me wondering how I hadn’t heard of this story before.
"The name "Kitty Genovese" became synonymous with urban apathy after "The New York Times" printed an article stating that she was stabbed to death during an attack that lasted more than half an hour, while 38 witnesses did nothing. Fifty years later, her brother uncovers a lie that transformed his life, condemned a city and defined an era."
The algorithm was right. I wanted to know more.
Kitty’s case has a tremendous number of important takeaways as I consider how powerful the media can be in influencing how we think about crime. When Kitty was murdered in 1964, her murderer was apprehended within a week. While the crime was shocking in the neighborhood at the time, what caused Kitty’s name to live on in crime reporting was an article in The New York Times reporting that 38 witnesses saw or heard Kitty’s attack and did nothing to help her.
In addition to the story, what contributed to the shock people felt was the fact that Moseley attacked her, left, and returned later and continued the attack. It was reported that the attack lasted for 30 minutes, so it’s not surprising that people wondered how it was possible that no one had helped her.
While it may seem to just be a sad story about people in general and that community specifically, to researchers it meant more. The terms bystander effect and Genovese syndrome were born. They represented the social psychology theory that if other people are present, a person is less likely to offer help to someone they perceive to be a victim.
It was 40 years before anyone publicly acknowledged that the original research was flawed and that there was so much more to the story than what had been reported.
The Importance of Witness Action
In the documentary The Witness, Genovese’s brother retraces her steps the night of her attack, going so far as to work with an actress to reenact Kitty’s attempt to escape her attacker and what her cries for help may have sounded like. It’s a chilling scene to watch, but the length of the attack makes it clear that if someone–anyone–had been close enough to intervene at any point, her life could have been saved.
However, it also becomes clear with the reenactment, witness interviews, and police reports, that it is unlikely that anyone was close enough to have provided enough help to have saved Kitty. The neighbors that did try to help were responsible for medical professionals to be able to reach Kitty and transport her to the hospital, but she died in transit. From reports, it’s hard to say if earlier medical attention would have saved her life, but what we do know can help us understand why no one intervened on her behalf during the attack.
The attack began around 2:30 a.m., so it’s safe to assume that a significant number of people were fast asleep.
The time of the attack would also cause us to assume that it was unlikely that anyone was out on the street (walking or driving home).
While we think of a scream as being very loud and a sound that we’re hardwired to respond to, it may not be as easy to hear in a city as we think. Distance (out and up) to the buildings where people were living, building materials (especially since in March many widows would be closed), and noise within the home (television, radio, conversations, etc.) would muffle the sound.
Without other indications that something is wrong, people tend to dismiss a single distress clue as something they misinterpreted. If, for example, they heard and saw a woman in distress or if there had been a recent crime wave so the community was on high alert, hearing what sounded like a scream may have been interpreted differently.
It wasn't widely discussed in 1964, but just like today, there would have been a number of people who don't feel safe contacting the police. This further decreases the chance that Kitty would receive help because the natural reaction of self-preservation would cause those individuals to delay their involvement or attempt to help her indirectly (i.e., yelling from a distance, telling a neighbor to call the police, etc.). That takes precious additional time.
Should people have heard and reacted? Yes. Did hundreds of people hear the screams, accurately process what was happening, and choose not to get involved? No.
The Extent to Which a Journalist’s Reputation Can Influence a Story
Two weeks after Kitty’s murder, the respected New York Times published their concerns over the lack of community and police response to Kitty’s attack. In 1964, there were journalists who questioned the report of 38 apathetic witnesses, but the public never heard from them. Those journalists were intimidated by the New York Times and, whether it was because they feared for their reputations or simply lacked the confidence to speak up, the misinformation went unchecked.
In 2007, research uncovered that there wasn’t any actual evidence that 38 people had witnessed Kitty’s murder or that neighbors hadn’t acted. People did act. There were calls to the police. The case evolved from one that introduced the widely accepted concept of the bystander effect to an example of how one false report can spread in the right environment.
In 1964 and even the decades after, did people want to believe the story that New Yorkers had become terribly jaded and disconnected from their community? Were readers so devoted to the New York Times as a source of truth that it was impossible to believe they'd publish something inaccurate? Have we always been too busy to fact-check and have a need to accept what experts say? How did the story with so many inaccuracies live unchecked for so long?
I remember hearing about the bystander effect when I was in a first aid course. The instructor said that a person is better off having a medical emergency in the company of one person rather than a crowd. I thought that was so strange–a crowd would be more likely to have someone with medical training. My instructor went on to explain that in a crowd, a person is less compelled to act because there is a chance someone else will step forward instead. If you’re alone, you’re more likely to act quickly because you immediately realize you’re the only person who can help. That always stuck with me for medical emergencies, but now I see how it lives in criminal cases as well.
Resources for Citizen Investigators & Internet Sleuths
In addition to The Witness (streaming on multiple services and likely available through your local library), Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case covers the full story, including the reinvestigation years after the original crime. Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America is a book I haven’t read yet that focuses on how the fact that Kitty was a lesbian potentially affected the investigation of her murder. It was 1964 and, though Kitty lived with her romantic partner, many reports indicated that they couldn’t be open about the nature of their relationship. This certainly would have become obvious as police learned more about Kitty, so it’s reasonable to wonder if that influenced the investigation.
For podcast lovers, there are quite a few episodes that discuss the case. You're Wrong About: Kitty Genovese and “Bystander Apathy” (1 hour) and Quicky 35. The Murder of Kitty Genovese (30 minutes) focus on the case, but if the sociological concept of the Bystander Effect is of more interest to you, I’d encourage you to search using that term and check out the podcasts with more of a psychology/sociology focus as opposed to true crime.
Questions that Kitty’s story leaves me with have been researched by others, so I’m hoping to hear more from readers and continue to research them myself.
Is the bystander effect real? Research has proven and disproven it–or rather proven that it isn’t as bad as we think.
Is the bystander effect getting worse? Or are the tools and resources we have available to us making us more likely to get involved?
Let me know what you think in the comments!