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The Bystander Effect: The Case of Kitty Genovese

Updated on October 19, 2011

No Safety In Numbers

During the early morning hours of March 13, 1964, twenty-eight year old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was repeatedly stabbed to death before almost forty eyewitnesses. While such a brutal murder is naturally horrific, the reaction of the surrounding populace, who heard Kitty’s screams of fear and watched the brutal attack, was perhaps more terrifying, for not a single person sought to help the young woman.

This social phenomenon, known as “bystander effect”, refers to the inability of persons in larger groups to effectively take action when near a distressed being. Simply, the presence of a crowd convinces the individual that someone else will be the one to intervene. It is, more or less, the ” diffusion of responsibility”.

As incredible as this literal illustration may be, it is even more enthralling to watch this type of group apathy as it happens, hence, the inclusion of a variety of videos.

A Study of Bystander Effect

Bystander Effect on a Global Scale

Do you believe that events such as the Holocaust and the expulsion of Native Americans were cases of global Bystander Effect?

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    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN


      I had no idea about the criminal status of not assisting a person in need in some European countries. That's interesting.

      And of course, the choice to help someone is a double-edged sword, just as most moral decisions are.

      I, myself, have always helped if I was in the position to do so. Although your girlfriend might have left you home alone that night, good Karma was right there with you, and I will take positive Juju over human acceptance any day :)

      So carry on, dear rescuer of wayward drunks! Your life is a meaningful one.


    • Craig Suits profile image

      Craig Suits 

      7 years ago from Florida

      Very interesting hub there Kiddo. I would point out that in some countries such as France, it's against the law not to assist someone in trouble. i.e. the Princess Diana case. The photographers all vying to get her picture in the car crash did nothing to try to help her and consequently were charged as a result.

      But is it always a good thing to help someone? Many many years ago I had my eye on this beautiful young blond I worked with. Finally,after months of setting her up, I got her to go to a bar next door after work and we hit it off like two peas in a pod (not that she had much choice :>)

      She invited me home where she was going to make us both dinner. I was in like Flinn.

      On the way out of the bar,going to her house, there was a thoroughly plastered drunk passed out in the bushes. I stopped to help him and she said, "He drunk, let him be". That just didn't seem like the humane thing to do so I got another co-worker from the bar and we eventually woke him up and took him home. My girl friend went home without me and I was screwed. Not the way I was hoping to be, but screwed non the less.

      Next time I think I'll take his wallet and keep on going. :>)

    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN

      Thank you, Seeker!

      I unintentionally made this hub a "call to action" type proposal; I hope that it will resonate with readers if the universe ever places them in such a scenario.


    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 

      7 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      This is such an awesome and very frightening hub! I think it's great that you've highlighted what can happen to us all. If something is happening and we are aware that we are feeling 'the bystander effect' hopefully it will give us a shake and make us go and do something to help.

      Voted up + awesome!

    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN

      @ Virginia:

      I have been met with rejection a number of times when trying to help someone as well. I find myself wondering if I am even capable enough to help. It is wonderful that you are making young people aware of things such as this. I am all for enlightenment.

      @ justateacher:

      I do not see how you could ever fail while doing as your gut feeling commands. I wonder what lies as the root cause of all the rejection we are met with when attempting to help another?

      Thank you both for reading and commenting,


    • justateacher profile image

      LaDena Campbell 

      7 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

      I have stepped up when others have not....I have been thanked and cussed and spit at among other things...It is hard to know what to do, but I will always try to do what I think is best...

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 

      7 years ago from United States

      I teach an essay which discusses this event in my English classes. The essay points out that it isn't always that people don't want to do something or don't care, but that they are often torn by knowing what they should do--maybe wondering what consequences would happen to them if they acted. I've had situations of crisis when I have acted to help strangers. At other times, I've had my help rejected. It is sometimes hard to know how much you should push forward with "doing something."

    • Lilith Eden profile imageAUTHOR

      Lilith Eden 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN

      @ Hattie Mae:

      It is a shame, isn't it? It makes me wonder what I would do in a similar situation.

      Thanks for reading!

      @ JGoul:

      Certainly, JGoul, it has been discredited. I included three helpful links within the text, two of which noted that the account may have been overdramatized. Yet, there is simply no telling as to what truly happened; that is the simple fact of historic events.

      I appreciate you challenging the generally accepted tale of Ms. Genovese and adding such detailed information. Understand, the tale of her death served as an anecdote to introduce the overall theme of bystander syndrome and didn't receive any major analysis on my part. I have no personal opinion on the subject either way.

      I appreciate your thoughts!


    • HattieMattieMae profile image


      7 years ago from Limburg, Netherlands

      They've also proven otherwise JGoul that it happens down the highway, in a scenario that you have a car accident where people just keep driving by. In many situations people just stand there watching. Even in colleges when a young girl gets raped, and others know about it and watch.:(

    • JGoul profile image


      7 years ago

      The original account, that 38 people watched Ms. Genovese scream herself to death while doing nothing, has been largely discredited and shown to be the result of an initial, hyperbolic newspaper account.

      Most of the witnesses saw only a portion of the events which appeared relatively innocuous; significant portions of the event occurred out of sight of the street and almost all of the witnesses; Ms. Genovese's lungs were punctured early in the attack, rendering her incapable of screaming; and several of the people who saw the more obviously violent portions of the sequence of events actually did call 911.

      Look it up; I'm not BSing you. Sociologists and psychologists continue to teach the more fantastic version of events because it memorably illustrates a legitimate phenomenon. As a result of the attack, research began to focus on the bystander effect, and revealed principles which are more useful than the original, hyped up, factually inaccurate "38 watch without helping" narrative.

    • HattieMattieMae profile image


      7 years ago from Limburg, Netherlands

      Yay! learned this in my Social Psychology class. Kind of disturbs me, because people don't help others and stop the violence! :(


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