The Situationist

The Situation of Helping

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 29, 2008

Genovese book cover from amazon

Psychologists Rachel Manning, Mark Levine and Alan Collins challenge the factual accuracy of the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in an American Psychologist article excerpted below. The Genovese murder, a legend in social psychology courses, stands for the proposition that people are more likely to exhibit helping behavior when alone than when in crowds (the “bystander effect”). Excerpts from the article follow:

* * *

The story of the 38 witnesses who watched from their apartments (and then failed to intervene) while Kitty Genovese was murdered on the street below, has an iconic place in social psychology. [It led to the development] of the idea that bystanders do not intervene because of a diffusion of responsibility, and that their perceptions of and reactions to potential intervention situations can be negatively affected by the presence (imagined or real) of others. And yet, as we will show with extracts from transcripts of the trial of Winston Mosley for the murder of Kitty Genovese (and other legal documents associated with the case), the story of the 38 witnesses is not supported by the available evidence.

* * *

Kitty Genovese was murdered and sexually assaulted early in the morning of March 13th, 1964 in the Kew Garden’s District of Queens, New York. While a report of the killing appears the same day in the Long Island Press (“Woman Knifed,” 1964), the story of the 38 witnesses was developed by two journalists, Martin Gansberg and A.M. Rosenthal. Gansberg wrote the first article on the 38 witnesses for the New York Times two weeks after the Genovese murder. Gansberg’s now famous article, published on March 27th on page 1 of the New York Times, opened under the headline ’38 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police. Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector’:

For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.

street from google image search for “kitty genovese”

* * *

All [psychology] textbooks give the impression that Kitty Genovese was killed on the street where the murder could be seen by others. Almost all texts suggest that the 38 witnesses watched from their windows as the murder unfolded before them . . . . All claim that nobody intervened, or called the police, until after Kitty Genovese was dead…

* * *

An analysis of the court transcripts from the trial of Winston Moseley, plus an examination of other legal documents associated with the case and a review of research carried out by a local historian and lawyer (Joseph De May Jr.), suggests a rather different picture of the events on that night . . . . De May Jr. has identified errors of fact and misleading wording in the original report by Gansberg.

[A detailed analysis of the factual inaccuracies is given by the authors, but we omit it here.]

* * *

We argue that stories like Kitty Genovese and the 38 witnesses play a key role in populating the psychological imagination in a way that precludes thinking about the positive contributions that groups can make to intervention. The point here is not to challenge the findings from the wealth of research that has led from this story. Rather that by problematising the story that has such a conceptual grip on the discipline, the power of the story itself is challenged, and we might begin to look at this area of inquiry in new ways . . . . 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.

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The entire article can be accessed here.

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One Response to “The Situation of Helping”

  1. [...] nearby Austin Ale House once housed a young Rodney Dangerfield and waitress Kitty Genovese, who was murdered under shameful circumstances nearby in 1964. The towering Romanesque revival building is The Mowbray, a 1920s [...]

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