The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping

The Kitty Genovese murder is well-known to every student of psychology: according to the story, 38 witnesses to Kitty’s murder failed to take any action to intervene or call the police. The shocking tale, which has “an iconic place in social psychology” prompted a series of studies on bystander apathy , starting with the most famous, by Darley and Latané (1968).

An article in the September issue of American Psychologist reveals the startling news that, despite its central position in the history of psychology, there is “no evidence for the presence of 38 witnesses, or that witnesses observed the murder, or that witnesses remained inactive”. Here’s the abstract of the article, which was written by UK social psychologists Rachel Manning, Mark Levine and Alan Collins:

This article argues that an iconic event in the history of helping research–the story of the 38 witnesses who remained inactive during the murder of Kitty Genovese–is not supported by the available evidence. Using archive material, the authors show that there is no evidence for the presence of 38 witnesses, or that witnesses observed the murder, or that witnesses remained inactive. Drawing a distinction between the robust bystander research tradition and the story of the 38 witnesses, the authors explore the consequences of the story for the discipline of psychology. They argue that the story itself plays a key role in psychology textbooks. They also suggest that the story marks a new way of conceptualizing the dangers of immersion in social groups. Finally, they suggest that the story itself has become a modern parable, the telling of which has served to limit the scope of inquiry into emergency helping.

The authors don’t argue that research on bystander apathy is invalid, or that bystander apathy doesn’t exist. Quite the contrary. But their point is that research psychologists have focused so much on the circumstances in which people don’t help others that we know considerably less about when they do:

It is important to acknowledge that stories of heroic helping do make their way into both introductory and other social psychology texts. But when they do they are often stories of individuals who act in a pro-social way in spite of the presence of others … There are very few attempts to explore the potential contributions that groups and group processes can bring to promoting collective intervention in emergencies (p.561).


Hat tip to Advances in the History of Psychology (also featured on the BPS Research Blog).

One thought on “The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping”

  1. More details and the most informed information concerning the murder of Kitty Genovese will be learned from my book “Twisted Confessions” that will be released on April 15th, 2008. As one of the two prosecutors of Winston Moseley for the murder of Kitty Genovese, I personally read every police report of the questioning of the neighbors and I interviewed no less that 25 in preparing the case for trial. As my book discloses, no more than six witnessed any part of the two attacks and only four were called as witnesses in the trial. However, I do believe that more than 38 heard the screams.

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