Friday — January 07, 2022

Kitty Genovese and The Bystander Effect

by: Cesar J Segura

On the early morning of March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was violently murdered outside of her New York City apartment. Now, in a city as big as New York, murders are unfortunately not all that uncommon. However, what makes this murder noteworthy was a shocking New York Times article which claimed 38 people had witnessed the crime take place. The article continued that not one of the witnesses attempted to call the police or help Kitty. NOT ONE! Of course, this brought quite the shock considering the attack itself took place over 30 minutes in PUBLIC! It is important to note, that years later, it was determined that some witnesses to the crime were successful in calling the appropriate authorities at the time of the incident. However, once this mis-information was released it was to late. Though this error in reporting was not all in vain. From Kitty’s murder and the New York Times article, an important concept was popularized known as “The Bystander Effect”. The bystander effect itself was used to describe the story by psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley who spoke out after the murder.

So, what exactly is the bystander effect? The bystander effect refers to a person being less likely to assist someone in need when other people are present. Latané and Darley attributed the bystander effect to two main concepts: the diffusion of responsibility and social influence.

The diffusion of responsibility according to Latané and Darley refers to a person’s sense of responsibility to a situation. They believe, the more people that are around, the less responsibility a person feels to the situation. In other words, thinking another person would/should take responsibility and be the first to assist as it is “not their problem”.

Social influence as described by the theory refers to a person picking up social queues from those around them. In other words, a person will look to others around them to determine a suitable course of action. If a group is ignoring someone screaming for help individuals are more likely to also choose to ignore the situation.

It is important to note that many cases have come to light since Kitty’s murder where witnesses also suffer from the bystander effect. Including the 1993 death of two-year-old James Bulger who was lured to his murder by two ten-year-old boys in the United Kingdom while dozens watched. Another alarming case is that of Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, a homeless man in New York who sat bleeding from his wounds for over an hour after being stabbed while attempting to save a woman who was being assaulted at knife point. While suffering from his wounds, dozens of people walked past Tale-Yax. Many of the people stopped to look at his bleeding body but offered no assistance. One of whom even went as far as to shake his body to ensure he was still alive and simply walked away once he was confirmed alive.

It is important to note that anyone in a group setting can be affected by the bystander effect. So what can we do to ensure we do not suffer from the bystander effect? In a situation in which you are seeing a person being victimized, it helps to see the situation from the victim’s perspective. Having empathy in a person’s situation can help you go from viewing a person being victimized to being an active bystander. Having a self-awareness and speaking up can help a person become an active bystander. Psychology Today encourages people to act as if they are the first person witnessing an issue. This will help to ensure that a person is not affected by the bystander effect and a victim receives some form of help. To sum it all up, if you see something, say something.