The Bystander Effect

Winston Moseley knew no one would stop him.

“I knew they wouldn't do anything,” he told police after his arrest. “They never do.”

Moseley murdered Kitty Genovese in Queens in 1964 in one of the most infamous murder cases in modern times.

The horrific crime gained worldwide attention largely because of a New York Times article that said “38 respectable, law-abiding citizens” did nothing while Moseley attacked Kitty Genovese on three separate occasions.

The story sparked worldwide condemnation and provided material for writers and composers, including the Phil Ochs song “Outside of a Small Circle Friends.”

There was talk of the Bystander Effect or the Genovese Effect and the words “I didn’t want to get involved” summed up life in the big city.

The Kitty Genovese case is the subject of a new documentary called The Witness that explores the mythology surrounding the murder. The film features Kitty’s brother, Bill, who was 16 years old at the time of his sister’s murder.

Bill Genovese has said in interviews that he wants his sister to be remembered as more than just a victim, that she had a life before her death.

Subsequent investigations found that many people didn’t hear Kitty Genovese’s cries for help and very few saw the actual attack.

There were two attacks, not three, and rather than dying alone in a hallway, a neighbor came out and held Kitty Genovese in her arms until an ambulance arrived.

Facts and Fiction

I’m a reporter and I can certainly see how the initial story got turned around. There’s the pressure of making deadlines and nailing a scoop that can often outrun the facts.

At first I wondered why it took five decades for the truth to come out. But then it’s nearly impossible to unring a bell.

People will believe what they want to believe even if you grab them by the scruff of the neck and shove them face first into the facts.

I remember when news of the Genovese case first broke. Or maybe I don’t. I’ve heard the story so often for so long that I really don’t know if my memories of the crime are real or not.

Fordham University psychology professor Dr. Harold Takooshian, who holds symposiums on the case, spoke about the murder on the public television Metrofocus and he noted the story is more exaggerated than false.

“Whether or not it was 38 or 8 witnesses,” he wrote in an article for Psychology Today, “Ms. Genovese felt horribly alone, and would have survived if inactive neighbors responded to her cries.”

Takooshian listed several other recent incidents where bystanders failed to help crime victims. He also staged fake muggings on city streets to see how people would react. All too often, they did nothing.

The murder is credited with helping to develop the 911 emergency call system and Good Samaritan laws that give legal protection to people who help those in trouble.

Winston Moseley died in March and Takooshian observed how chilling it is that a sociopath turned out to be a better judge of human character than psychologists.

The story is fascinating and I’m sure people will be discussing the Kitty Genovese case 50 years from now.


Ron said…
Rob, before leaving this comment I watched the documentary clip from the link you shared. I have no idea why, but for some reason I was not familiar with Kitty Genovese, so I watched a few other videos on You Tube surrounding her case and was riveted. Later today I will watch the other link you share on Metrofocus in which her brother is interviewed.

I can't even image what her brother has gone through these past 50 years and not having closure with his sister's death.

And I'm also very curious to know if in fact what the newspapers said was true, that 38 witnesses did nothing to help her.

Thanks so much for sharing this, buddy. Have a great week!

Thank you for sharing this, buddy.

Bijoux said…
I actually learned about it in Psychology 101. I'm not surprised the story got exaggerated. It's sad if it was even just one witness.
Rob K said…
@Ron, hey buddy, what's up? Kitty Genovese was a huge story in New York and it amazes me how it still has so much power after all these years. The family suffered something terrible. In fact, her brother said the incident made him so apathetic that he joined the army and fought in Vietnam--where he lost his legs. So one tragedy begat another.

Take care, brother!
Rob K said…
@Bijoux--Yes, initially I thought the story was completely false, but that professor believes enough people knew what was going on and they could've saved her life. The exaggerated story doesn't erase the fact that a lot of people failed this woman.

Take care!
valerie said…
wow, never heard of k.g.

yeah we are quick to believe whatever the internet spits out as if everything is fact and then we defend the story like we were there.

i just heard from an actual person who was in the news about something he did and he said what was put out on the internet wasn't even true. people get it twisted and run with it. it's hard to know what to believe.
Rob K said…
Yes, Val, it is frightening how quickly the truth gets twisted. Mark Twain said a lie can get around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on. And that was long before the Internet.
Great post on such a sad incident. I had never heard of this case. It shows the worst of humanity, indifference. Why is it that certain types of situations trigger off feelings of sympathy and others feelings of apathy?

Greetings from London.
Rob K said…
Thanks, brother! Sometimes people can shut down their feelings and pretend evil doesn't exist.

Take care.

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