Kitty Genovese was the victim of a terrible crime that ultimately ended her life and led to her inadvertently becoming one of the most famous cases in psychology. Learn more about this young woman and the influence her murder had on the field of social psychology.
Who Was Kitty Genovese?
It was on a very early morning in the spring of 1964 when a young woman by the name of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was heading back to her apartment from her job as a bar manager in New York City. As she approached her building, she was attacked and brutally murdered by a man name Winston Moseley.
The crime was clearly horrific, but what is it that sets Kitty Geneovese’s sad fate apart from all of the other murders that took place around that same time period? Why in Genovese’s name still well-known more than 50 years after her death?
Her notoriety is due to a well-known but also somewhat inaccurate article detailing the events surrounding her death that was published in The New York Times. According to that article, 37 of her neighbors witnessed her attack and murder, yet no one made any effort to help.
It was this report on her death that prompted psychological research on a phenomenon that has since been dubbed the bystander effect. This research suggests that because being part of a larger group leads to a diffusion of responsibility, people are less likely to help others in situations where other people are present. As a result, Genovese continues to be a staple in introductory psychology textbooks, which often recount the same story that was originally told in that famous New York Times article.
What Really Happened?
It was around 3AM that morning at Genovese drove home. She had left her car and started walking toward her apartment when a strange man suddenly approached her. Frightened, she began to run but the man quickly gave chase, overcoming her and stabbing her twice in the back.
Genovese screamed, “Oh my God! He stabbed me! Help me!” she called out.
In the article published after the attack, it was suggested that all 37 of her neighbors had clearly heard these desperate calls for help. In reality, almost none of the neighbors could clearly hear what was going on. Most of these individuals hears some commotion, but were totally unaware that the sounds they heard outside were the calls of a frightened and injured person.
At one point, a man opened his window and yelled down onto the street, telling the man to “Let that girl alone!” The attacker briefly fled and left the grievously injured Genovese alone. She slowly made her way toward the entrance of her apartment. While she drew closer to her home, her position also moved her completely out of view of any witnesses.
Around ten minutes later, Moseley returned to the scene of his early crime. He stabbed her several more times, raped her, and stole a small amount of money before leaving her to die in the hall outside her apartment.
All told, the attack spanned a period of around 30 minutes. It was not until after the final assault that a neighbor finally called the police, who were on the scene within a few minutes. An ambulance arrived sometimes around a 4:15AM, but by then it was too late. Genovese died on the way to the hospital.
What Happened After the Attack?
Genovese’s murder may have simply slipped out of public consciousness if it had not been for the article published two weeks after the attack. The New York Times headline suggested that “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.”
While the article suggested that all of these neighbors clearly heard and saw the attack, the reality was that most did not witness the events or understand what was happening at all. The impression the article gave was that these people saw Kitty being attacked and simply failed to respond.
The reality was that only one of those 37 neighbors was ever aware that Genovese had been stabbed during the first attack. Only one other individual was aware of the second attack. Due to the layout of the apartment complex, the majority of the other so-called witnesses only heard bits and pieces of the commotion outside and had no way of knowing that the sounds were that of a murder. Most simply assumed that what they had heard amounted to some drunken brawling or a lover’s argument.
The Times’ version of the events led to considerable public outcry and Genovese’s neighbors were vilified for their lack of action. One person explained, “I didn’t want to get involved.” Those words quickly became associated with behavior inaction.
The story continued to be widely told, particularly in psychology textbooks, for years. It wasn’t until a 2007 study investigated the events as they actually took place that people began to take a more critical look at the Genovese case.
What Impact Did Kitty Genovese Have On Psychology?
While many aspects of the Genovese case were misunderstood for decades, her tragic death did inspire a wealth of research on social behavior and the bystander effect. Psychologists have found that when large numbers of people witness an event, it is often less likely that people will step forward to offer assistance. This can be compounded when the nature of the situation seems ambiguous or if witnesses are unsure of what they can do to help.
Other cases of the bystander effect have been seen in recent years, as stories emerge about serious accidents or crimes in which witnesses have watched and failed to react.
Gansberg, M. (March 27, 1964). 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police. New York Times.
Manning R., Levine, M. and Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese Murder and the social psychology of helping: the parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 62, 555-562.