THE BYSTANDER EFFECT
There’s a psychological phenomenon called the Bystander Effect, in which more people who are present at a crime, the less likely people are to help the victim of the crime. It applies both to crimes and other emergency situations. If there are few (or no) other witnesses to the crime, people act. The theory has been tested in a series of studies, but what led to those studies and the origination of the term (which is also called “Genovese syndrome”) was the brutal 1964 murder of a young New York lesbian named Kitty Genovese.
When 28-year-old Kitty Genovese got off work at Ev’s Eleventh Hour Bar it was already after 3 a.m., so she drove straight home to the apartment she shared with her partner, Mary Ann Zielonko, in the Kew Gardens section of Queens. She was heading toward her apartment door when Winston Moseley approached her. Clearly afraid, the slight young woman ran, but Moseley caught up with her and stabbed her from behind twice. Genovese screamed, shouting, “Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Help me!”
What happened next has been the subject of much debate, numerous botched newspaper reports, and psychological studies. Her cries were heard by several neighbors, and according to American Psychologist, one of them, Robert Mozer, yelled for Moseley to “Let that girl alone!” as the attacker was about to stab Genovese again.
As lights came on in nearby apartments, Moseley ran away to his vehicle, but as the lights went back off again, he got back out and began to follow Genovese, who had reached the doorway of her building. Police reports from that night are fuzzy; some say that the police didn’t take the calls seriously, and others say there was only one caller, nearly 30 minutes after the attack, who reported that a woman had been beaten but she was walking around.
Some newspapers reported the killer hid in his car, others reported that Moseley drove around until it was safe to return to his victim.
What’s not in dispute is that Moseley found Genovese and stabbed and raped her. Genovese had reached the doorway of her building and, according to The New York Times, cried out, “I’m dying.” Greta Schwartz heard those cries, called police, and ran to Genovese, holding her in her arms until the police arrived.
The Times reported that police discovered that 38 people had heard part of the attack on Genovese, and only one, Schwartz, had called police. Later, American Heritage analyzed the case and reported that only a dozen people had heard anything, most of them not realizing what was going on or the severity of the attack.
After the Times article came in 1964, psychologists dubbed this the first example of the bystander effect. But the article was said to be so sensationalized and inaccurate that in 2007, American Psychologist wrote that many modern psychology textbooks had gotten the facts of the case all wrong. While they called the case more of a parable, the editors didn’t dispute the bystander effect, which essentially boils down to the fact that people feel a diffusion of responsibility to act when in groups because they think someone else will. Feminist psychologists later tackled the case, saying that it was better viewed through the lens of male-female power dynamics rather than the bystander effect.
Kew Gardens historian Joseph De May analyzed the case for On the Media and reported that Genovese could not have screamed for the duration of her attack, saying the “wounds that she apparently suffered during the first attack, the two to four stabs in the back, caused her lungs to be punctured, and the testimony given at trial is that she died not from bleeding to death but from asphyxiation. The air from her lungs leaked into her thoracic cavity, compressing the lungs, making it impossible for her to breathe. I am not a doctor, but as a layman my question is, if someone suffers that type of lung damage, are they even physically capable of screaming for a solid half hour?”
The married Moseley was arrested and admitted he set out to kill Genovese because he wanted to kill a woman as women didn’t fight back; he admitted to two other rape-murders as well. He was initially found guilty and sentenced to death, but that was overturned and he was later given life. He has been denied parole 15 times so far.
Films, books, even the graphic novel Watchmen covered the Genovese case (Kitty is why Rorschach becomes a vigilante), though many works used that original and inaccurate New York Times report. Most recently, Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner used the Genovese murder as a case study in the discussion of altruism in their best-selling SuperFreakonomics.