In the early morning of 3 March 1964 residents of apartments located around Kew Gardens, a neighbourhood in New York City, were startled to hear a woman’s screams – “Oh my God, he stabbed me”. Several witnesses were believed to have heard or seen the attack but no one directly intervened.
A man was seen to run away from the area, but then return some ten minutes later when he raped and stabbed the already wounded woman, Susan “Kitty” Genovese, who
was huddling semi conscious nearby. She died later on the way to hospital in an ambulance. It was believed that several witnesses had also observed this second attack.
The incident became infamous as a manifestation of the so-called “Bystander Effect”, where witnesses to a crime tend to watch the event without assisting – for a variety of reasons.
Two social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley developed a professional interest in the case and in 1968 conducted a series of experiments to investigate the psychological forces at play. They found two major factors.
Firstly there was the presence of others in the area. Paradoxically the more people nearby at the time of a crime, the less likely it is that the victim will be assisted. This is the so-called “diffusion of responsibility” effect, where people feel that others present will assist, and this decreases their obligation to help.
Secondly there is the tendency to imitate the conduct of people in the surrounding area. If no one is assisting in the situation bystanders can interpret this to mean that help is not required, leading to a paralysis of action.
The Bystander Effect can be broken if there is a person present with pronounced leadership qualities who begins to react independently of the group. Others will then follow and this can lead to the provision of assistance to the victim.
Image: Photograph of Kitty Genovese, murdered in 1964, despite several witnesses being present in the area, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.