Defining the Bystander Effect: Kitty Genovese Murder & Research by Latane and Darley

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  • 0:06 The Bystander Effect
  • 0:53 Kitty Genovese
  • 2:36 Predicting Helping in…
  • 2:58 Diffusion of Responsibility
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered outside her New York apartment building. Some of her neighbors heard her screams but didn't call for help. This lesson explains the social phenomenon known as the bystander effect, which helps to explain why Genovese's neighbors didn't help her.

The Bystander Effect

In October 2011, a two-year-old girl in China was hit by a small van as she walked on a road. While she lay injured on the road, a total of 18 people walked by her. Some of them even walked around the blood. A larger truck came by and ran over her. Finally, a man picked her up and called emergency services. She was taken to a hospital, where she survived for eight days before dying.

Why would people just walk by and not help her out? What makes people ignore others in need of help? One possible explanation is the bystander effect, which is the social psychology term for when people do not help in an emergency situation if there are other witnesses present.

Kitty Genovese

The bystander effect is also sometimes called the Genovese syndrome after Kitty Genovese, whose 1964 murder in Queens, New York, sparked social psychologists to study the bystander effect.

28-year-old Kitty Genovese was coming home from her work at a bar at around 3am. She parked her car about 100 yards away from her apartment building and began to walk towards the entrance. Winston Moseley approached her, and when she ran from him towards the front door to her building, he chased her and stabbed her twice in the back.

Social psychologists studied the bystander effect after the murder of Kitty Genovese.
Kitty Genovese

Genovese screamed and cried out for help, and Moseley ran away. Several of her neighbors in their apartments heard her cries, but not all of them knew that it was a cry for help, and reports vary as to how many, if any, people called the police.

Genovese got up and staggered towards the back door of her apartment building, but a locked door prevented her from entering. She collapsed on the ground near her door. Moseley returned and found her about 10 minutes after he first stabbed her. When he found her the second time, he stabbed her several more times, raped her, and left her for dead.

A witness who heard her screams during the second attack finally called the police, who arrived too late. Kitty Genovese was dead.

After her murder, the New York Times ran a story with the headline: 'Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police.' This wasn't accurate; later investigation found a few witnesses, and most of them didn't realize that the cries they heard were for help, and none of them actually saw the entire attack. Probably a dozen people heard Genovese cry out, but many of them thought it was rowdy drunks coming home from a bar.

Predicting Helping in an Emergency

Despite the inaccuracies in the original story of Kitty Genovese, her case and the article about it prompted psychologists to study why people do not help out in emergencies when others are around. One of the first studies about the bystander effect was done by Bibb Latane and John Darley a few years after Genovese was murdered.

Latane and Darley found that the more bystanders there were in a situation, the less likely anyone was to offer help or call emergency services. This might be because they believe that someone else will help out. It is called diffusion of responsibility.

Latane and Darley found that there are five steps that people take in order to decide whether to help in an emergency. They are:

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