Monday, 16 April 2012

The Kitty Genovese "incident", parts of an essay not used.

The 1964 Kitty Genovese incident is understood as an event of strangers failing to lend assistance to a victim in an emergency situation, as an instructional narrative it is found in introductory textbooks and media which feature the description of 38 Bystanders watching the murder of Kitty Genoese by Winston Moseley (Mannig, Levine & Collins 2007 : 555). Explaining this narrative was a significant motivation in the social psychological research of Bibb Latane & John Darley which established the “Bystander Effect” (Cherry 1995 : 271). It has subsequently become a modern day secular parable, part of popular culture that extols the virtue of individuality (Mannig, Levine & Collins 2007 :556). The reality of the Kitty Genovese incident is different from this common narrative.

The murder which took place in Kew Gardens district of Queens, New York around 3am on March 13, 1964 (Mannig, Levine & Collins 2007 :556) consisted of 2 seperate attacks, the second fatal attack occurring inside the stairwell of 92-96 Austin Street (Mannig, Levine & Collins 2007 :558) where she was raped as she lay dying (Cherry 1995 : 273). It was initially reported in the Long Island Press, with the title “Woman,28, Knifed to Death” (1964) and then developed into a story covered by two journalists, Martin Gansberg & A.M. Rosenthal. Gansberg published his article on March 27th with the headline “37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police. Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector”(Mannig, Levine & Collins 2007 :556). This article established the main elements of the predominant Kitty Genoese murder story, 38 individuals watching her murder that involved 3 seperate attacks by Winston Moseley, for more than over half an hour (Mannig, Levine & Collins 2007 :556).
Mosely & Genovese.
Although this account simplifies the incident, the number of witnesses stated in the article cannot be verified and misses the fact that only some were eye witnesses, while others only heard the 2 attacks, all the witnesses only saw moments of the attacks and the second and final attack occurred within the stairwell with only a small number of potential witnesses. There are also claims that the police were called immediately after the first attack by witnesses (Mannig, Levine & Collins 2007 :557) . This incident is seen as a signal crime, seen by many as saying something about the wider culture (Mannig, Levine & Collins 2007 :556) and much of the immediate discussion in the media tended to approach the story from this approach, of course it has dubious utility.

Historically before this signal event, as described in the Gansberg article (Gansberg 1964), crowds were seen to be “deindividuating” facilitating active threat behaviour excitation through collective action as compared to inaction, a passive threat (Mannig, Levine & Collins 2007 :560) and thus the Kitty Genovese incident indicated something counter intuitive up to that point, that being part of a group can inhibit individuals responding to an emergency situation. Latane & Darley 1964 suggested the cause of the inaction was due to the presence of other bystanders, a diffusion of responsibility and the need for social proof, people when surrounded by strangers will look around at others for cues on how to react, to define wether or not the situation is an emergency or not. It was defined in terms of immediate situational factors (Cheery 1995: 271).

In watching the television documentary “Bystanders” (TV1 18/3/98), which in the context of this essay I use as providing first hand narratives from victims and witnesses of violence I was struck what the stated motivations and cognitions the Bystander Effect was able to account for and what it did not accommodate. Of the 10 narratives on the documentary I am focusing on the narrative of the old lady telling a group of youths not to smoke on the train and the subsequent abuse she experienced, threats, cigarettes and beer being pour over her while other people in the carriaged watched because it has both narratives of the victim and a witness. Her description as she left the train was “ Humiliated (TV1 18/3/98 @ 21:11 minutes) did not want to look like a fool in front of everyone else (TV1 18/3/98 @ 21:41 minutes)” which is an indication of the victim taking cues from people, the need to maintain social identity, which every one else, the witnesses are doing . The witness interviewed described the bystanders to this event as “Carrying on in true British style.” (TV1 18/3/98 @ 13:10 minutes) which also supports the need to maintain social identity, evincing calm and thus by the principle of social proof the situation is understood as a non emergency. He also stated that it “Appeared to be non violent & non physical, may have happened” (TV1 18/3/98 @ 23:10 minutes) and thus indicated a degree of uncertainty about the nature of the situation which is an aspect of the Bystander Effect (Cialdini 1998 : 200).

The witness also indicates that “interviening” may have presented a “real possibility of danger to self & escalating situation” (TV1 18/3/98 @ 23:10 minutes) and these aspects of the situation are not efficiently taken into account by the Bystander Effect model. Many of the narratives of the documentary describe the potential and actual cost of intervening, “destroy ones life”. The narrative of Shaun Haldane stopping Anthony Kirkwells robbery of a nightclub resulted in Shaun's death (TV1 18/3/98 @ 37:15 minutes). The research conducted by Latane & Darley 1964 presented emergency situations that did not present the threat of violence, possibly and understandably due to ethical issues in the experimental conditions necessary for this type of research.

The context of the emergency situation is significant, whether it is violence, the context of violence and whether intervention involves the risk of harm. In an early account recorded by Rosentahal 1964 an onlooker indicated a reluctance to intervene in a “lovers quarrel” and Latane & Darley's 1964 experiments did not account for the influence of gender (Cheery 1995 : 273).

Later studies conducted in 1976 by Shotland & Straw have attempted to examine the Genovese attack in context by staging assaults. They found that intervention was more likely when the attacker and victim were perceived by onlookers as being strangers 65%. When the attacker and victim were perceived as married intervention dropped to 19% . Thus it became possible to examine the Kitty Genovese incident in terms of social violence towards women (Cherry 1998 : 276). From there it is also possible to examine it in terms of race and social class.

“Until we address the reality of the poor, they will remain locked in the same hermetic and unbroken cycle of rage and sometimes they will kill each other.”

If we theorize on the level of community, there have been near prescient aspects of research conducted on this topic

Solutions proposed to this situation over time were to inoculate bystanders to make them aware of the effect (Mannig, Levine & Collins 2007 :560), knowing ones neighbours, to reduce faulty inferences and facilitating social control in the community also indicated issues of bystanders with violence within families


Cialdini, R.B. (1998). Cause of death:Uncertainty. In M.H. Davis (Ed), Annual Editions-Social Psychology 98/99 (pp 197- 201). Guilford Dushkin/ McGraw-Hill. Pages 197 to 201.

Cheery F. (1995). Kitty Genovese and culturally embedded theorising. In The Stubborn Particulars of Social Psychology (pp 16-29). London Routledge. Pages 16 to 29).

Clark, Russel D & Word, Larry E. (1972). Why don't Bystanders Help? Because of Ambiguity?. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 24, Number 3. Pages 392 to 400.

Clark, Russel D & Word, Larry, E. (1974). Where is the Apathetic Bystander? Situational Characteristics of the Emergency. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 29, Number 3. Pages 279 to 287.

Manning R. Levine & M Collins A. (2007) The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping. In the American Psychologist, Volume 62, (6). Pages 555 to 562.

Tuffin, Keith. (2005). Understanding Critical Social Psychology. Published by Sage, London. Pages 13, 18, 19, 36 & 71.

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