According to Gansberg (1964), 38 citizens observed the murder of Catherine Genovese, but did not interfere or inform the police. From the title to the structure, phrases, and words used throughout the article, the author is clearly interested in sensationalism rather than providing sufficient evidence to support the claims made. The claims themselves are absurd. According to the article, the attack began at 3:20 a.m., which would suggest all 38 witnesses woke up to the attack and proceeded to watch it continuously for the remaining 30 minutes before one of them called the police.
Some residents were not even eye witnesses and discarded the incident as a domestic argument, and given the fact that her lung was punctured in the initial attack, there was no way she could have called for help effectively (Manning, Levine, & Collins, 2007). Gansberg’s (1964) storytelling about her screams for help is therefore questionable. Finally, the last attack took place inside the building, where not everybody could watch, even if they wanted to. Other false statements in the newspaper article include Catherine being dead on arrival, eye witnesses not interfering in the attack, and eye witnesses not calling the police immediately after the first attack (Manning et al., 2007).
Despite the fact that Gansberg’s article is unscrupulous in terms of manipulating facts for the sake of sensationalism and disregarding its consequences on subsequent public reactions, the story did encourage the discovery of a new phenomenon called the “bystander effect.” According to Latane and Darley (1969) there are less chances of receiving help as the number of bystanders increases, which is explained by the diffusion of responsibility and urban alienation.
The story is still reported in textbooks probably because it is an excellent example of the bystander effect in practice. The only problem is that it is not true. In reality, most eye witnesses offered contradictory statements. Some did not see any violence take place, others reported the attacker was beating her, and nobody saw the stabbing take place. One witness allegedly scared the attacker away the first time and called the police, but that version of the story is inconsistent with the bystander effect. Even if the false story is taken as the true version, given the fact that it was 3:20 a.m. and that the streets were empty, the bystander effect is not a probable explanation for the alleged “apathy” of the witnesses.
Two important lessons can be learned from this incident apart from the bystander effect. First, people are not thought how to evaluate and respond to emergencies. Because urban environments can be unpredictable and require quick decision-making at times, it is important to address the issue of inadequate emergency response training for the general public.
The second lesson is that human perception and memory are significantly flawed. While three witnesses testified against the attacker, none of them agreed on what exactly happened. Therefore, an important question is why three individuals perceived and recalled three different versions of the same event and how that can affect helping others. Perhaps perception and interpretation issues will explain similar events better than the bystander effect.
Gansberg, M. (1964, March 27). 37 who saw murder didn't call the police: Apathy at stabbing a Queens woman shocks inspector. New York Times.
Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1969). Bystander "apathy". American Scientist, 57(2), 244-268.
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(6), 555-562.