Kitty Genovese

Background and Definition:

The term ‘by-stander effect’ (also now known as ‘the Genovese syndrome’ (Gansberg, M, 1964)) has been used widely since the early 1960s to describe a social phenomenon where the more witnesses present at an emergency, the less likely any of them are likely to offer assistance (Changing Minds, 2010). The cause of this phenomenon is debateable, although two theories are more frequently offered than others. The first theory is that of ‘diffused responsibility’. Put simply, this expands on the definition of the by-stander effect and is explained as, ‘the idea that people are less likely to intervene to help someone who seems to need it if there are others present, because they perceive responsibility as being shared between all present, and therefore see themselves as being less responsible personally’ (Holah, M, 2006).

An alternative theory for the by-stander effect is ‘pluralistic ignorance’. This is where individuals, ‘assume nothing is wrong because nobody else looks concerned’ (Changing Minds, 2010). The concept largely concerns conformity.

Kitty Genovese: A Case Study:

The following case study has been compiled as a result of the report in The New York Times, dated 27 March, 1964, except where otherwise indicated.

On 14 March, 1964, Catherine ‘Kitty’ Genovese was returning home at approximately 03:20 a.m. Conforming with local residents, she had parked close to the local rail station, secured her red Fiat and begun the 100metre walk towards her apartment block situated within building 82-70 Austin Street, Queens, New York, on approaching her apartment block she noticed a male stranger loitering not too far  from the sole entrance of her building located at the rear due to the number of retail outlets that occupied the lower floor. Had she not have been pursued by the stranger, she may have made it to the street corner that housed a telephone with a direct connection to the local police precinct. Instead, she was accosted by the lone gentleman and savagely attacked as he viciously raped and stabbed her.

Despite the alarm raised by Kitty as she begged for help and despite that she had communicated her predicament, the only assistance offered at this period was a neighbour opening his window long enough to yell, ‘Let that girl alone’.

The alarm raised at this stage was enough to alert the attacker and warn him that he had been spotted, although it did not prevent her sexual assault. At this point, the attacker ceased his attack and calmly strolled back down Austin Street, the way he had come. It wasn’t long before the lights of the local houses were dimmed, which the perpetrator took as a signal to return to his crime and continue the task he had begun. Scenes of violence as well as shouts and screams were seen and/ or heard by neighbours for a second time, but still they showed no signs of offering any kind of assistance beyond switching on lights to try and locate the ‘nuisance’.

It was the third and final attack that finally claimed Kitty’s life. On investigation, it was found that at least 38 individuals witnessed the three attacks either visually or audibly and yet no one thought to call the police until after the attacker had fled a final time. Of those 38 individuals, only two made themselves known to emergency services when they arrived on the scene, a mere two minutes after receiving the first call. Had someone assisted between the time when the screams were first heard up until her last breath 35 minutes later, Kitty may still be alive today.

Despite the lack of witnesses in the first instance, the investigation ended with the arrest of Winston Moseley, married father of two. Moseley is reported to have confessed to the similar ‘slayings’ of two other women during the previous eight months. He was charged with homicide and sentenced to death which was later ‘reduced to life imprisonment’ (Gado, M)

What was found to be most surprising were the reasons witnesses provided for not being proactive. ‘I didn’t want to get involved,’ reported one neighbour, whilst another claimed’ it was late’ so they ‘went back to bed’.

Further Evidence:

Although the ‘by-stander effect’ is a fairly new concept, it is not a new behaviour. Perhaps the most widely known case of crowd syndrome is the Holocaust. This infamous case offered the equally infamous quote to demonstrate ‘diffusion of responsibility’ when Nazi officers claimed they ‘were just following orders’ and that had it been as ‘bad as journalists were saying, then surely someone else would have known’ (List Verse – Top 10 List Online). Several villages neighbouring the camps must have been aware of something sinister going on if only for the sheer stench of death that hung in the air.

A sickening and more recent case of ‘by-stander effect’ is demonstrated in the case of an incident dubbed ‘The Richmond High School Incident’. On 27 October, 2009, a 10-strong gang raped a 15 year old girl outside a school dance. At least 10 individuals stood around throughout the two and a half hour ordeal, encouraging, laughing and photographing the scenes they saw. Even when the crowd doubled in size, no call to the police or campus security guard was placed.

Latané and Darley (1969): Official Research Findings:

The following findings been compiled as a result of Latane and Darley’s article, Apathy, published in American Scientist

Following the murder of Kitty Genovese, two social psychologists led the initial research into the diffusion of responsibility. In an experiment where they pumped smoke into an enclosed space, they found that 75% of subject that were in the room left to report it compared to only 10% in a room with others.

They carried out related studies in this field that included the staging of a shoplifting and a ‘lady in distress’. The full findings and background into their research can be found in the journal referenced below.


Whether you are a psychology student, an avid reader, or someone with an interest in human behaviour, you may want to consider some of the following questions for discussion:

Kitty Genovese – based on the New York Times Original report and other evidence you have found, do you believe she was a victim of diffused responsibility, pluralistic ignorance or do you have an alternative theory?

 A man lies passed out at the bus-stop, where five others are gathered. He smells of alcohol but shows no obvious signs of injury. Would you stop to help? Explain you reasons.

Are historical events such as the Tuskegee Tragedy, the Holocaust and Slavery examples of by-stander effect on a mass scale. Explain your answer.

 Is there safety in travelling in numbers?

 How many different theories can you think of to support/ disprove the by-stander effect? What evidence is there to support your answer?

If the individual encountering an emergency is partially responsible for the event, should they receive public intervention? Explain your answer.

Related Online Resources:

As well as the references listed throughout the article that are detailed in the next section, this list provides further insight and related resources concerning the by-stander effect:

10 Notorious Cases of the Bystander effect – provides a top 10 list of the ‘by-stander effect’ including those mentioned above.

 Bystander ‘Apathy’ – A full and comprehensive breakdown of Latane and Darley’s studies into the bystander effect as reported in American Scientist, 1969..

 Bystander Intervention (Bystander Effects) – This webpage shows a snapshot of various findings looking at finding effects and details when an individual is likely to assist

 ‘I kept saying, “Help me, help me”. But no one did’ – Tara McCartney’s 2005 article in the Guardian documents how a young man was stabbed in front of his girlfriend and a packed top deck of a number 43 double-decker bus, where no one offered assistance until after the attacker had fled and the victim had scrambled downstairs.

 Kitty, 40 Years Later – This article, written by Jim Rasenberger takes a look at the murder of Kitty Genovese almost 40 years after her brutal murder.

 The Holocaust – The United States of America Historical Museum publishes article surmising the persecution of the Jews during WWII with links to further resources and a guide to further reading.

The Journey of Winston Moseley – In his chapter, Mark Gado provides an insightful look at the life of Winston Moseley, convicted murderer of Kitty Genovese, following his confession.  


Changing Minds, Bystander Effect, (last visited 28 Jun, 2010)

Further Education Lesson Trader Online, Bystander Intervention (Bystander Effects), (last visited 28 Jun, 2010)

Holah, M, (2006), Diffusion of Responsibility cited on Psych Exchange, (last visited 28 Jun, 2010)

Gado, M, Chapter 10: The Kitty Genovese Murder:The Journey of Winston Moseley cited on, (last visited 07 Jul, 2010)

Gansb erg, M, (1964), The New York Times Online, Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police cited in The New York Times, (last visited 28 Jun, 2010)

Latane, B and Darley, J, Bystander ‘Apathy’ cited in American Scientist Online 244-268, (last visited 07 Jul, 2010)

List Verse – Top 10 Lists Online, 10 Notorious Cases of Bystander Effect, (last visited 07 Jul, 2010)

McCartney, T, (2005), The Guardian Newspaper Online, ‘I kept saying, “Help me, help me.” But no one did.’ Cited in The Guardian Newspaper, (last visited 28 Jun, 2010)

Rassenberger, J, (2004), The New York Times Online, Kitty, 40 Years Later cited in The New York Times, (last visited 28 Jun, 2010).