The Bystander Effect. Remembering Kitty Genovese

The Bystander Effect. Remembering Kitty Genovese

I recently had a confronting experience while riding the train in Sydney. It made me re-evaluate the transactional relationships we have come to have with everyone around us, especially as our cities grow and we are both part of and surrounded by a faceless and nameless crowd that we do our best to ignore. 

My story starts at the end of a long day, preparing to board the train. As I moved down the aisle of the carriage, I hit my knee very badly. In the minutes that followed, the pain built and crescendoed. I felt faint, and then suddenly found myself on the floor of the train looking up at a circle of surprised passengers. To their credit, they helped me up, gave me my hat and tried to get me to sit down.  I felt a confusing and pressing need to go home, to be safe. So I got off the train at Wynyard. The train pulled away and I was on the platform, alone in the crowd. No one aware that I was still dazed and unsteady on my feet. 

I made it home, though it took several hours for me to regain all of my senses. In the days that followed I spent a lot of time thinking about it. A part of me was suddenly afraid. The realisation that as the train pulled away and I stood amid the crowd, there was little reason for anyone to help me. They knew nothing of what had just happen to me. We were in a transactional relationship. I moved to the left, they moved to the right, as we go about our business in the urban crush. 

The experience made me think about a much older story, the assault and murder of Kitty Genovese. It was one crime among the many that fill human history, but one that shook the United States at the time, launching a whole avenue of study for social psychology. We know that Kitty Genovese died early on March 13, 1964, just outside where she lived in Queens. One Winston Moseley had picked her out of the sea of humanity and at 3:15 AM, as she approached her apartment, he attacked her with a knife. It appears she called for help as she fled. A few neighbours apparently responded, one shouting out of the window to the attacker to “let that girl alone.”

In the half hour that followed, Moseley left and then returned to the scene, searching the area and finding Kitty Genovese collapsed behind her building. He assaulted her, attacked her again and then fled, leaving her to die. Six days after her murder, he was arrested at a burglary and put on trial for Kitty’s murder. He died in 2016, having served fifty-two years for the crime. 

Sensationally, it was reported at the time that thirty-eight people heard the attack and did nothing about it. The reporting went on to launch the psychological study of the bystander effect. The theory of the bystander effect suggests that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are there. The theory suggests that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help. In effect, we default our responsibility to the crowd. 

The concept has spawned dozens of lines of research and is standard fare in psychology textbooks. Legislators have taken notice, the charter of human rights in Quebec says that: 


2. Every human being whose life is in peril has a right to assistance.

Every person must come to the aid of anyone whose life is in peril, either personally or calling for aid, by giving him the necessary and immediate physical assistance, unless it involves danger to himself or a third person, or he has another valid reason. 1975, c. 6, s. 2.” 

Essentially, in Quebec, there is a legal obligation to help people in danger, if there is a way to do so without harm. However, as much as it inspired changed, there is a problem with Kitty Genovese’s story. Little of the reporting of the crime was true. A deeper review of the case, years later, suggests that the number of witnesses was exaggerated, no one witnessed the entire attack, a few people did call the police and a women ventured out into the night to comfort the victim as help arrived. Even further, recent research real-world evidence has even called into question the very nature of the bystander effect. 

Work by Philpot, Liebst, Levine, Bernasco and Lindegaard analysed closed circuit video from three countries; the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and South Africa. Despite regional differences, they found that in 9 out of 10 public conflicts, at least one bystander intervenes to try to help. Contrary to original theories of the bystander effect, when more people are present the likelihood of intervention grows even larger. In other words, a larger body of people may reduce the likelihood that an individual feels committed to responding, it does increase the likelihood that someone will respond. The bottom line, in this dataset at least, people are more likely to intervene than not. 

Even if the extent of the bystander apathy surrounding Kitty Genovese’s death was incorrectly understood, her story should still speak to us across time. It should force us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are committed enough to those around us to step forward and help when needed. As far back as 1989, Darley and Latané explored the mechanics of what makes someone more likely to respond in a group crises. They suggested that there are three crucial factors that influence our personal level of responsibility: whether or not they feel the person is deserving of help, the competence of the bystander and the relationship between the bystander and the victim. 

Uncomfortably, I realised that none of these factors apply in my own personal case. I feel thankful for the group of strangers that helped me off the floor of the train. However, the moment I stepped off the train, hat in hand and head spinning, I became just another face in the crowd. Anyone who knew something about my distress was gone, whisked down the tunnel on the train. Off on their own journeys. 

I remember leaning against a pillar deep in the belly of the train station, head spinning, ears ringing, trying to work out how to use my phone to call for help. It’s been a while since I felt so isolated. It didn’t even occur to me to ask for help, from those moving past me, or station operators. As I said, I was confused. 

I’m thankful that when people suffer a real and significant threat, it seems to inspire action in those around them. Just last week in Sydney, a few individuals took up improvised defences and detained a knife-wielding man who had just stabbed two young women. Though the man was stopped from hurting anyone else, sadly one of the young women died. Shades of history repeating. 

A confirmation of our basic humanity when the situation is obviously serious still leaves me unanswered questions. For the people that did intervene, stopping the man brandishing a knife on a Sydney street, there were many that just stood and watched, many I’m sure filmed the incident for social media. For the few people that helped Kitty Genovese, no one helped her soon enough, gathering improvised defences at her first call of distress.

Then there is my situation. Nothing as serious as a knife attack, assault or mugging, but a more subtle distress. Something that I suspect fills our cities. People that are lost, or lonely, hurt or confused. Regardless of the severity of the event, I wonder what sort of world we are building with culture and technology that encourages us to glaze our eyes to the world, bury our faces in our devices, detune ourselves from those around us? Maybe there is some truth in the bystander effect after all.  







Philpot, R., Liebst, L. S., Levine, M., Bernasco, W., & Lindegaard, M. R. (2019). Would I be helped? Cross-national CCTV footage shows that intervention is the norm in public conflicts. American Psychologist. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000469



Commuting Photo by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash

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