The Kitty Genovese Murder and the Social Psychology of Helping: The Parable of the 38 Witnesses

Department of Psychology, Lancaster University, Lancaster, England, United Kingdom
American Psychologist (Impact Factor: 6.87). 10/2007; 62(6):555-62. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.6.555
Source: PubMed


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.

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    • "Almost all texts suggest that the 38 witnesses watched from their windows as the murder unfolded before them. . . All claim that nobody intervened, or called the police, until after Kitty Genovese was dead (Manning et al., 2007, p. 557). "
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    • "9 Based on a close examination of the legal documentation surrounding the case, Manning et al. (2007) debunked the myth that so many people passively observed that murder, but also concluded that research on diffusion of responsibility, and its corollary, the bystander effect, support the psychological principles behind the myth. 10 Specifically, Manning et al. (2007, p. 566) explained that ''the bystander effect [based on diffusion of responsibility theory] has become one of the most robust and reproduced in the discipline'', citing reviews such as Latane and Nida (1981). Diffusion of responsibility suggests that whistleblowing is more likely as the number of individuals aware of the situation decreases. "
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