37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police
Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector
As tokki wisely observes, Kitty Genovese is an
unavoidable topic in the social sciences and law enforcement. Indeed, I have encountered her story in sociology, criminal justice, psychology, and social psychology courses. Along with the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram's obedience experiment, it is one of a holy trinity of studies in social psychology. The three were recently joined by the Abu Ghraib Prison abuse scandal in social psychology's canon of infamy. However, further research suggests that perhaps the Kitty Genovese case ought to be put into context and demystified. We should also keep in mind that, although Zimbardo and Milgram conducted genuine experiments that were questionable even by the standards of their time, their research should probably not be lumped together with criminal activity.
Sanity, it seems, sometimes has to come from quarters far removed from the emotional scene of a crime--in this case, the other side of the pond. A study by Rachel Manning of the
University of the West of England, and Mark Levine and Alan Collins of Lancaster University was published in 2007. Aptly subtitled "the parable of the 38 witnesses," the researchers put the case under the proverbial microscope and confirmed what others dared not utter: all your textbooks are wrong, and the scientific establishment was uncritically teaching the product of journalistic sensationalism for 40-odd years.
The primary source of the Kitty Genovese story was the press. Second and third in line were the NYPD and the adversarial process of the murderer's trial. Neither may lay claim to having all the facts. Let's keep in mind that the most used source, the press, is the least reliable and the least apt to correct itself when wrong. Yesterday's news gets forgotten, not corrected. The New York Times, source of the first account of the 38 (or 37) witnesses, has spent 43 years referencing the case. The most salient aspect of the case these days, it seems, is that Genovese's former roommate has since outed Kitty as having been her lesbian lover. A March 2007 article in the paper very learnedly states that her death "became a national symbol of urban anomie," lest it be accused of a lack of sociological jargon.
The Genovese case is cited as a canonical example of the bystander effect in the context of emergency helping. The research rot can be traced at least as far back as 1968, when Darley & Latane opened what was to be a seminal paper on bystander behaviour and diffusion of responsibility by citing what the press had reported about the Genovese case. As nobody else thought of challenging them on the details of the case, the rest is history (as well as being a monument to the failure of peer review). As Manning, Levine, and Collins observe, "the story itself has become a modern parable, the telling of which has served to limit the scope of enquiry into emergency helping."
The facts to keep in mind, according to Manning, Levine, and Collins are as follows:
- A minority of the 38 supposed witnesses were in a position to be eyewitnesses. Of these, even fewer were actually able to see anything at 3:15 at night
- Nobody was in a position to see both locations in which Genovese was attacked
- Nobody can name the 38 witnesses. There may have been fewer or more
- The prosecutor in the trial found it next to impossible to find reliable witnesses to use in court
- At least one person did yell at the attacker and temporarily scared him off
- At least one person did call the police
- There was no 911 system in 1964. You called the local precinct. The response depended on the disposition of the officer who picked up the phone
- Austin Street was not exactly known for being peaceful
In addition to this, some scientific questions, particularly questions of method, arise from an examination of the way in which the case has been treated in the literature:
- Do 38, or however many, people separated by walls qualify in any way as a social entity such as a crowd?
- Assuming that they do, can deindividuation be considered a factor in the group's supposed inaction?
- Assuming that they do not, would a thorough examination provide data on more than just the percentage of individuals who exhibited helping behaviour?
- What did each witness see, hear, and do?
- What was the role of personal responsibility in the local culture?
- What was the influence of the prevalent attitudes regarding gender and violence on the witnesses?
- Did anyone conduct interviews with the witnesses less than decades after the event?
For the most part, I think that the Kitty Genovese case is overcited and nonexistent lessons are derived from it. In the study of helping behaviour, one could find many more useful cases
to study in the context of the bystander effect and of diffusion of responsibility: the hazing death of Matthew Carrington in 2005, a new psychology class favourite, thanks to what was
until yesterday Court TV and the relatively straightforward nature of the case; the Deletha Word case in Detroit in 1995, which is much more complicated but of which there are much clearer accounts; for the extra outrage factor, try the 2007 Christine Lakinski case of some yob in Hartlepool urinating on a dying woman in the street instead of helping her, visually documented by the perpetrator's own friends as "YouTube material." Give me a bit more time and I'll come up with a list longer than the list of real witnesses to the Genovese murder.
Kitty Genovese may have been a tragic case in a cold, heartless city but the myth surrounding her murder needs to be brought into perspective and seen for what it is: a case that's complicated, not what it appears to be, and many details of which have been lost in time. Manning, Levine, and Collins do well in examining the parable as such and not trying to reinterpret the Genovese case itself. It says much more about the social behaviour of scientists than it does about that of the urban population of 20th century New York City.
Darley, J. M., Latane, B. (1968). Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 8(4, Pt.1), 377-383.
Stokes, M., Zeman, D. (1995). The Shame of the City. Newsweek, Vol. 126 (10), 26
Manning R., Levine, M. & Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese Murder and the social psychology of helping: the parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 62, 555-562.
Powell, M. (2007). In a City's Vast Memory, Tragedies Not Kept Vivid May Fade to a Glimmer. New York Times, 18 March 2007.
BBC News (2007) Man jailed for urinating on woman. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/tees/7063366.stm