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The Death of Kitty Genovese: A Case that Echoes to This Day


The 1965 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens first alerted people to what became known as the “bystander effect.” The original reporting, by The New York Times, that her death was witnessed by 38 persons who did nothing, was eventually debunked, but the story has still resonated as a parable about the callousness of urban living, says Harold Takooshian, Ph.D., professor of psychology.

He talks about why the Genovese case continues to resonate today, and what psychologists have learned about the “bystander effect.”

Full transcript below

Patrick Verel: This is Patrick Verel, and today, I am speaking with Harold Takooshianakooshian, a professor of psychology here at Fordham. Now, let’s start with the case of Kitty Genovese, whose death in 1965 first alerted people to what became known as the bystander effect. The original reporting by the New York Times that her death was witnessed by 38 witnesses that did nothing was debunked a long time ago, but the story still resonated as sort of a parable about the callousness of urban living. Can you tell me why that is?

Harold Takooshian: The issue of what is the relationship between people is as old as civilization. How should strangers react to each other’s misfortune? In fact, it goes back to scripture. In Genesis, Cain told the Lord, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Why am I responsible for other people’s welfare? In a way, you could judge a civilization by how people care about each other, and that’s very part and parcel to the bystander effect. If I may, I would share with you two stories that I think make the point. These are both true stories. One goes back about 50 years, but when I first heard it, the hair stood on the back of my head. There were two teenage boys riding their bicycles by the side of a river, and they heard some screams. One of them saw somebody in the river going down and obviously needed help. The two boys didn’t turn their back. One of them got off his bicycle. He swam to the person who was screaming, he grabbed the person, he brought the person to the shore, and he discovered that it was his mother. Just such an inspiring story.

The other story I would share with you is not that inspiring. It happened in July, July 12th, I believe, in Florida, Cocoa, Florida. A black man was drowning, and for some reason, he couldn’t save himself. He was drowning for several minutes. Meanwhile, fortunately, there were five teenagers there watching this. Unfortunately, those five teenagers not only didn’t help the black man, but they started shouting taunts at him and even videotaped part of his drowning, and he died. Of course, people were upset, including his sister, who said, “Why on Earth didn’t these people save my brother?” The sad fact is they weren’t accused of any crime, and they could have saved somebody that they didn’t save. That is so emblematic of the Kitty Genovese situation that occurred here in New York, the same thing 52 years later.

Patrick Verel: The bystander effect, as I understand it, it’s not so much about the result of a person’s damaged moral compass as it is about the confusion and chaos that comes from living in crowded spaces. The theory is if I’m alone and I witness a crime, I’m more likely to respond to it than if I’m surrounded by others, because it’s hard to know who in the group will act first.

Harold Takooshian: The bystander effect is a group phenomenon. Frankly, the boys are an example of the bystander effect. They weren’t accused of any crime, but that didn’t mean they didn’t feel bad. It was a group phenomenon where they saw each other laughing about it, and they redefined the situation. It’s not the they were immoral, but it’s that the group takes over. If I could summarize the bystander effect in one sentence, the more people at the scene of a tragedy, the less likely anyone will intervene. We call it diffusion of responsibility. The reason for this is people see each other inactive, and they give each other false information that it’s not really a problem. There’s no real crisis there. Kitty Genovese, on march 13, 1964, was screaming for her life, “Oh my God, he stabbed me. Please help me.” It was very clear what was happening, but people seeing this also saw each other. They saw each other doing nothing. As a result, from her point of view, they were ignoring her screams, but from their point of view, they were simply reacting normally to the group phenomenon. They’re not doing anything. She doesn’t really need help or somebody else will help her. The bystander effect, as you say, takes the morality out of the situation. Of course, the antidote to the bystander effect is to tell people what to do when they see a crisis, to not be fooled by the situation.

Patrick Verel: I want to share something with you that’s a little off-script but I think is related to this. Many years ago, I went to London with my then girlfriend, and we were wandering through Piccadilly Circus, which is a lot like Times Square. We saw a crowd of people gathered around in front of I think it was a hotel, and we thought, oh, it must be like a street performance or something like that. What we saw was it was two men actually beating another man very savagely. In fact, one of the guys picked up a street sign that had been on a heavy weight and flipped it upside down and tried to use the weight as a hammer.

Harold Takooshian: Remarkable.

Patrick Verel: In broad daylight. The giant crowd of people stood around kind of with their jaws slack. We, of course, did the exact same thing. I remember vividly that my girlfriend at the time grabbed me by the arm and just said, “Do something.” My thought was, do what? It was a really jarring experience and to see this group just frozen, just kind of not believing what they were actually seeing. I feel like I was a part of, basically, what this thing is, this bystander effect.

Harold Takooshian: That’s a very powerful example of the bystander effect. I would mention two things related to what you just said, that very powerful experience you had. One is that it occurs all the time. The importance of the Kitty Genovese tragedy is that it opened our eyes to this. We didn’t see it before, but as soon as the Kitty Genovese tragedy was identified by the journalist A. M. Rosenthal, we see it now all the time. My phone constantly rings about talking about how the Genovese incident relates to these remarkable events that we see that definitely explanation like what you said, people just standing there watching, frozen. The second thing, though, is those two fellows didn’t stop. They weren’t embarrassed by the crowd. My impression is that criminals, in general, know the secret. They know this. They know that people don’t intervene, and they almost rely on it. Unfortunately, that’s what happened with Kitty Genovese. That monster that killed her knew the secret.

In fact, the chief of detectives, Albert Seedman, in 1964, was so surprised when he heard about the Genovese incident, that there were so many witnesses who didn’t intervene, that he personally … The chief of detectives personally interviewed the criminal. He said to the criminal, “How did you keep attacking this woman with all these people watching you?” The criminal told him, “I knew they wouldn’t do anything. People never do.” Which is why your experience is so powerful. It’s the same thing, years later, in a different country.

Patrick Verel: This is a case that goes back to 1965, and New York City was on its way to becoming a much more dangerous place. I wonder, is it still relevant today in a place like New York City, where crime is much, much, much lower?

Harold Takooshian: This question comes up all the time. Have things changed since 1964? The answer is we can’t give evidence. We’ve done research, but we haven’t done the time series that really is essential. The second thing, though, is 9/11. The city changed in 2001. If you were here at the time, you may remember that you could see it. There were restaurants that were open, feeding people for free right after 9/11. For a few months, people were just in a different zone. I would say since 2001, in New York City, people have become more conscious of their community, more helpful. We have done research that shows this. We do get higher rates now of helping than we had in the 1980s and ‘90s. So things have changed, but I can’t be more precise than that.

Patrick Verel: How has the understanding of this phenomenon changed over the years? Is there, for instance, an agreement on when it sort of kicks in?

Harold Takooshian: The bystander effect is pretty complex. The key ingredient seems to be not the relation of the observers with the victim but that observers with each other. The more observers, the less likely someone will help, so there’s no cutoff point there. You could have just one observer who doesn’t help. You could have 30 observers who all help at once, which happens also, vigilantism. It seems like ambiguity is the key thing. Second to ambiguity is the belief that I shouldn’t get involved. In our survey, we found … On what we call duty-to-aid laws. Should the law encourage bystanders to intervene if they could do so? Almost every country in the world has a duty-to-aid law that says if you see a crisis, you should intervene. You’re expected to intervene. The U.S. is not one of these nations. About 18% of people feel that a person should not intervene when they see a crisis, because they’ll only add to it. 82% of people in the United States support a duty-to-aid law. They feel you should get involved. This is a very interesting area for me, because I’m constantly surprised by people’s reasoning when it comes to what they should do if they see a crisis.

Patrick Verel: You talked about this idea that these laws that dictate around the world that you have a duty to administer aid if you see a crisis. These laws do not, generally, be found here in the United States. Is this a unique American phenomenon?

Harold Takooshian: No. English-speaking countries value freedom. The ACLU considers this an infringement on freedom. The history of America is not individualism. It’s communitarianism. De Tocqueville, when he visited the USA in the 1840s, said America is great because America is good. People help each other. So the idea of helping one another is a very American idea. It shouldn’t be fought. Other countries have these laws, and they are effective. People should be expected to intervene. The law sets the tone. This is the kind of research I’m doing now. If something is illegal, it’s more likely to be judged immoral. It’s unfortunate we don’t have duty-to-aid laws. Nobody’s going to force somebody to intervene if they don’t want to, but people should know … Like the Genovese witnesses. They should know when they see something, the government expects them to call the authorities. England is another country that has no duty-to-aid law, and you saw yourself there what the tone was. Duty-to-aid laws make a difference.


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