No doubt, you've all heard of the bystander effect and the real-life case of Kitty Genovese, murdered in front of 38 witnesses who did nothing to help. But now Rachel Manning, Mark Levine and colleagues say the Kitty Genovese crime didn’t happen that way at all.
They aren’t questioning the principle of the bystander effect – indeed, the Genovese case inspired a rich, persuasive evidence base for the phenomenon whereby being in a group can dilute people’s sense of individual responsibility. Rather, Manning’s group are saying that the Genovese crime has become an urban myth that has biased social psychological research away from studying the beneficial effects that groups could potentially have on helping behaviour.
For instance, take the idea that there were 38 witnesses. After the Genovese court case, Assistant District Attorney Charles Skoller has been quoted as saying “we only found about half a dozen [witnesses] that saw what was going on, that we could use.”
Moreover, there was an ambiguous context to the crime, with one witness saying Genovese and the man who later stabbed her were “standing close together, not fighting or anything”.
Indeed, none of the witnesses reported actually seeing the stabbing. And whereas the myth states that none of the apartment residents overlooking the crime intervened, in fact the murderer felt compelled to abandon his first attack after one of the witnesses shouted at him. This led to the actual murder taking place inside a nearby building where none of the trial witnesses could see. And a sworn affidavit by a former NYPD police officer – at the time a 15-year-old witness – claims his father did make a phone call to the police (bearing in mind this was before any 911 system was in place).
“By debunking the myth and reconsidering the stories that we present in textbooks, we might open up the imaginative space for social psychologists to develop new insights into the problem of promoting helping in emergency situations,” the authors concluded.
Manning R., Levine, M. and Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese Murder and the social psychology of helping: the parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 62, 555-562. (link is to pdf via author's website).
Read more about Kitty Genovese in this Psychologist magazine article about psychology's myths.