- Catherine Genovese was brutally raped, stabbed, and ultimately killed, in 1964, in New York City, with multiple witnesses hearing her scream and doing nothing to help.
- At the time of the murder, the media had blown the story vastly out of proportion, even inflating the number of witnesses who heard or saw Kitty scream for help.
- The murder of Kitty Genovese triggered research into the Bystander effect that happens when people disperse responsibility to help when witnessing a crime.
Catherine (Kitty) Genovese was killed on March 13, 1964. In Queens, New York, Kitty was stabbed multiple times and raped. The perpetrator’s name was Winston Moseley, a 29-year-old man from Manhattan, who was arrested six days after the murder and served a lifetime in prison. What was particularly disturbing about this case were the circumstances that surround it.
How Many Witnesses?
Although the story of Genovese’s murder was highly exaggerated in the newspaper, some of the facts still check out as true. Even if there were not 38 witnesses as it was initially reported, several people saw what happened. When Kitty Genovese was returning home from work, she was brutally assaulted by Moseley, who used a hunting knife. The first stabs did not kill Kitty, and she managed to escape and started screaming for help. One of the neighbors saw the incident happening and yelled back through the window that Moseley should leave her alone.
Hearing that, Moseley escaped, but only to return back to the crime scene shortly after. Genovese was still not dead, and Moseley finished the job, stabbing Kitty again and raping her. Kitty Genovese died from multiple stab wounds on her way to the hospital.
The Bystander Effect
What this gruesome crime brought to attention is the way people behave when they are witnessing criminal activities. Also known as the Genovese syndrome, this psychological effect explains how and why people can not react appropriately in different scenarios where they feel danger. The bystander effect is something that has been researched based on the case of Kitty Genovese, as there were reports of many people witnessing the crime happening, but ultimately doing nothing to stop it.
There are a couple of general rules that come together that enable people to be influenced by the bystander effect.
More People Means Less Help
First of all, people tend not to react when there are other people present, witnessing the same thing in front of their eyes. The bystander effect is more likely to come in play, the higher the number of people that are seeing the crime actually is. If people witness things in a group, they almost instantly think that someone else is going to help and that they are not responsible for what can happen if they do not react. That feeling is accompanied by an impulse that signals to a person how there must be someone else that is more capable of helping the person that needs help. When all of this aligns together, the bystander effect comes to its full potential, and it renders people witnessing the crime to a complete standstill.
What is also important is the type of event that the people are witnessing. If something requires the people to react immediately, the most likely will not do so. Also, if an event can cause actual harm, or if there is even just a threat of harm, people will not choose to help. Finally, the bystander is very likely to occur if the type of crime people are witnessing is bizarre and unexpected.