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Why Did Kitty Genovese Die?

Why Did Kitty Genovese Die?

9 Mins
November 10, 2011

Fred Groh's review of Tibor Machan's Generosity: Virtue in a Civil Society  (in the November 1998 issue of Navigator) began by describing the murder of Kitty Genovese. Genovese was stabbed to death on a public street in 1964 while thirty-eight onlookers did nothing to help her. I eagerly read the review, hoping for a powerful pro-individualist analysis of that incident. I was hoping it would rebut the modern liberals and conservatives who cite Genovese's murder as proof that our overly individualistic society breeds callousness and apathy toward others.

The only analysis I found was Groh's passing comment that David Kelley condemned those thirty-eight bystanders as "morally culpable." I was hoping for a better explanation of how to come to terms with that horrible incident.

Kitty Genovese

For those of us who support freedom and voluntarism, Kitty Genovese's murder is a dilemma. If human beings are basically benevolent, why did thirty-eight ordinary people do nothing when they heard Genovese's cries for help? They could have picked up the phone and called the police without endangering themselves. If, on the other hand, human beings are naturally callous and immoral (as conservatives and liberals argue), then the neighbors' behavior is consistent. From here, though, it takes only a small step to conclude that we need governmental regulation to compel people to behave civilly and morally. The burden falls on the defenders of liberty to make the case that a totally free society does not mean Kitty Genovese-type incidents are the norm.

In my opinion, it makes no sense to talk about the moral qualities of the Genovese bystanders until we understand why they didn't help her. This article attempts to illuminate certain patterns of human behavior that provide some insight into the bystanders' apparently horrible behavior. By recognizing these patterns, perhaps we can prevent similar tragedies from happening.


As a copywriter, I've studied the mechanisms of how and why people are persuaded to take action, especially in the marketplace. My clients, most of whom are business owners, hire me to create a piece of writing that will convince their customers to trade hard-earned cash for a particular product or service.

As any savvy marketer knows, one of the most relevant and useful principles for understanding human behavior is "social proof." Social proof simply means that people often take their cues from others when deciding what to think or how to behave in a given situation, especially when they are unsure about what to think or do.

It would be tempting to dismiss social proof as mindless, herd-like behavior. But the fact is, everybody relies on it to some degree. It can provide valuable direction and knowledge when we do not have the time or the resources to discover how we should act.

Suppose a fire alarm goes off in your workplace without warning. Chances are, you will observe the actions of the people around you before you decide whether you should leave. If you don't smell smoke and nobody is yelling "fire!" or rushing out the door, if there is no crowd gathering in the street, you probably assume it is a false alarm and wait for the maintenance man to shut it off. I know I have done this many times. This is a form of social proof. You take your cues from behavior of others to learn what you should do in that situation.

In the marketplace, social proof is a common way for people to make quick decisions about whether to buy something. For example, many people do not have time to browse through hundreds of books, so they choose one from the bestseller list. They figure that if millions of other people thought a particular book was good, it must be good. Other people do not have time or energy to find out which is the best fax machine or VCR, so they buy whatever model is the hottest seller. A group of tourists walking down a busy street does not know which restaurant has the best food, so they wait in line at the most crowded one they find, thinking that if so many other people are willing to wait, it must be something special. Social proof provides a shortcut to knowledge that guides our actions.

But social proof is not fool-proof. Sometimes it can lead people astray, and with grave consequences. This is probably what happened to the bystanders in the Kitty Genovese incident. I wish I could claim credit for this insight, but the credit goes to two New York-based psychology professors, Bibb Latané and John Darley, who first hit on the idea in the late 1960s. A summary of their findings, with plenty of enlightening commentary, can be found in a fascinating book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by psychologist Robert Cialdini (New York: William Morrow, 1993). Cialdini explains Latané and Darley's thesis that it was precisely because there were so many witnesses that Genovese received no help. Here is how Cialdini summarizes it:

Very often an emergency is not obviously an emergency. Is the man lying in the alley a heart-attack victim or a drunk sleeping one off? Are the sharp sounds from the street gunshots or truck backfires? Is the commotion next door an assault requiring the police or an especially loud marital spat where intervention would be inappropriate and unwelcome? What is going on? In times of such uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues. We can learn, from the way the other witnesses are reacting, whether or not the event is an emergency.
What is easy to forget, though, is that everybody else observing the event is likely to be looking for social evidence too. And because we all prefer to appear poised and unflustered when we are with others, we are likely to search for that evidence placidly, with brief, camouflaged glances at those around us. Therefore everyone is likely to see everyone else looking unruffled and failing to act. As a result, and by the principle of social proof, the event will be roundly interpreted as a nonemergency (p. 132—33).

Social proof thus spawns a state of pluralistic ignorance in which "each person decides that since nobody is concerned, nothing is wrong" (Ibid.) It also produces an effect called "diffusion of responsibility" whereby people assume that because there are others present, somebody else must be doing something about the emergency, so no individual feels particularly compelled to take action.

Darley and Latané tested for pluralistic ignorance and the diffusion of responsibility in a series of clever experiments. They sought to discover whether a victim of an emergency was more likely to get help when there were several bystanders or only one.


The subjects who participated in the experiment were male and female college students. One subject at a time was ushered to a room to participate in a "discussion" through a headset and microphone. The subject was instructed to listen to his headset as other people spoke in turn about their personal problems as college students in an urban environment, and the subject would speak through his microphone when his turn came. He would not be able to communicate with the others, nor they with him, since his microphone would be shut off except when his turn came to talk. The subject believed these other participants were actual, live people, when in fact they were tape-recorded voices. Depending on the experimental condition, the subject thought he was in a discussion with one other person, two others, or four others.

During the experiment, the subject heard another "participant" have a seizure, with the victim saying: "give me a little help here...;I'm gonna die-er-er-I'm ... gonna die-er-help..." While the seizure was happening, the subject's microphone was off and he could not talk with anyone or find out if others were responding to the emergency. But the subject could leave the room to report the seizure to the experimenter who was seated in the hall. As soon as the subject reported it, or after six minutes had elapsed from the time the seizure started — whichever came first — the experiment ended.

Darley and Latané found that "the number of bystanders that the subject perceived to be present had a major effect on the likelihood with which [he] would report the emergency." Thus, the "victim" had an 85 percent chance of receiving help within two minutes when there was a single bystander, versus only a 31 percent chance when there were two or more bystanders. (Darley and Latané, "Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1968, vol. 8 no. 4, p. 379).

In other words, when the subjects perceived that others also knew of the victim's plight, they were far less likely to take personal responsibility to report it than when they believed they were the only bystander hearing the seizure. Darley and Latané's findings held true even when bystanders were in a group and could directly observe the actions of others.

One of the interesting features of the Genovese incident was that the neighbors were not gathered together in the same way that a group of onlookers on the street would have been. Why, then, did Genovese's neighbors, in the isolation of their apartments, not behave as individual bystanders rather than as a group?

Like the subjects in the Darley and Latané experiment, they perceived they were not the only bystanders. They could see lights in other windows being turned on and the silhouettes of others who were also watching. Early in the attack, when Genovese first cried for help, a neighbor shouted from an upper window: "Let that girl alone!" Even if some people didn't look out their windows, they probably heard the neighbor calling out and rightly concluded that others had heard the disturbance.

The pluralistic ignorance explains why the Genovese bystanders behaved as they did. They probably figured that since nobody else was reacting as if there were an emergency, it probably was not an emergency. And even if some suspected it might be an emergency, the diffusion of responsibility effect made them less compelled to take action. In a group situation, it is much easier for an individual to assume he or she does not have to do anything and hope someone else will take care of it by calling the police or yelling out the window.

INDIVIDUALISM AS THE ANTIDOTEHere is where it gets interesting for defenders of individualism. One could argue that it is collectivism and the sense of "community responsibility" that foster exactly the kind of group inaction whereby Kitty Genovese was murdered in the presence of thirty-eight witnesses. Thirty-eight people apparently reasoned that they, individually, needed to do nothing. The research findings of Darley and Latané support this.

Far from being the culprit, as some commentators have argued, individualism and a sense of individual responsibility are powerful tools for counteracting the errors that arise from social proof. Imagine if someone in that group of bystanders broke out of the state of pluralistic ignorance and decided: "Even though nobody else is acting concerned about that woman I hear screaming, I'm concerned. I'm going to call the police, even if I'm making a fool of myself and interfering in a private quarrel." If just one person out of the thirty-eight had acted according to that sense of individual responsibility, in a timely manner, Kitty Genovese probably would have survived the attack.

If we believe most human beings are benevolent, and if we believe in a free society, then social proof gives us a way to have our cake and eat it too when confronted with tragic incidents such as Genovese's murder. Labeling the bystanders' actions immoral does not offer an adequate rebuttal to the charge that left to their own devices, people are heartless and will do nothing to help their fellow human beings. The theories of social proof and pluralistic ignorance, however, give us robust models for reconciling an apparent contradiction in the Genovese case: why a group of presumably good people did not help her. As we have seen, two plausible reasons are that people either do not recognize an emergency for what it is, or they do not feel a pressing, individual responsibility to take action. (There may be other reasons for not helping in certain emergencies, such as fear of being injured, but this does not seem to hold in the Genovese case, and must be left for another discussion.)

TO DIE FORThe theory of social proof is more than an explanation for an incident that happened thirty-five years ago. It is a practical thing to know. Failure to understand it can cost you your life.

Suppose you need help in a public place, say at the scene of an accident, but people are passing you by. You can change the dynamics so that you do not become the victim of people's pluralistic ignorance and diffusion of responsibility, as Kitty Genovese was.

There are a few simple rules to keep in mind to make social proof work for you, not against you. Be as clear as possible about your need for help. Do not rely on people to come to their own conclusions about what is happening, because they may conclude there is no emergency when in fact there is one. Single out one person and explain precisely what you need him or her to do: "You, the lady in the green jacket, this is an emergency. I need an ambulance. Call 911 right now." By taking charge and assigning responsibility to individual bystanders, you can channel the situation so that it works for you, not against you.

In order for social proof to be directed positively, in order to convince people (especially people in a group) to take action and offer aid, it goes without saying that they need the freedom to do so, without worry that they will be penalized for failing to live up to some standard of a "good Samaritan" set forth by legislators. Laws that compel people to help in emergencies are not only immoral, but they give people strong incentive to avoid getting involved. If people know they may be penalized for failing to act in an emergency, they will have a greater incentive to evaluate a situation as a non-emergency in order to avoid the penalty. Thus, such laws would only exacerbate the pluralistic ignorance effect and would probably increase the likelihood that another Genovese-type incident would occur.

If we are going to make convincing arguments for freedom in a civil society, then we must take into account elementary principles of human psychology such as social proof. Individualism, as I have shown, is a powerful antidote to the kind of group-think that led thirty-eight people to conclude Kitty Genovese did not need their help. Armed with a clearer understanding of why Genovese's bystanders behaved as they did, we are now better equipped to answer those who falsely claim individualism is the cause of such tragedies.

Christine Silk , is a copywriter in Los Angeles. She received a doctorate in rhetoric and communication from Carnegie Mellon University and has published articles in the Los Angeles Times and the Journal of Educational Psychology, among other periodicals.

How did Kitty Genovese Die?
by Roger Donway

At 3:15 A.M., on the night of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was returning home from her job as manager of Ev's 11th Hour, a bar in the Hollis section of Queens. Her apartment was in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, a cheerful place with private homes, apartment houses, and neighborhood stores. Like many in the area, Genovese parked her car in a lot adjacent to the Long Island Railroad Station. Although the railroad frowned on the practice, this had been her routine since arriving from Connecticut a year earlier.

Genovese locked her car and began the 100-foot walk to her apartment building, little realizing that she had been spotted leaving the bar and followed. Soon, though, she noticed a man at the far end of the parking lot, she changed direction, heading toward a call box for the 102d police precinct. But she got only as far as a street light when the man grabbed her. "Oh my God, he stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!" Genovese screamed. Lights went on in a nearby 10-story apartment house and somebody yelled "Let that girl alone!" The assailant walked to a car and drove off. Genovese struggled to her feet. The apartment building's lights went out.

Then the assailant came back and stabbed Genovese again. "I'm dying" Genovese shrieked. "I'm dying!" Again, lights went on. Again, the assailant went to his car and drove away. Again, Genovese struggled to her feet.

Again, the assailant returned. By then, Genovese had crawled to the back of her apartment building. (Because the building has retail stores on the first floor, the entrance to the apartments were in the rear.) The assailant saw Genovese on the floor, at the foot of the stairs. He stabbed her a third time. And Kitty Genovese died. Finally, at 3:50 A.M., the police received a phone call from a neighbor of Genovese's . In two minutes they were on the scene.

Six days later, Winston Moseley was arrested for the murder of Kitty Genovese; in June he was convicted and sentenced to death. Bit in 1967, the state's Court of Appeals reduced Moseley's sentence to life imprisonment. As a result, Moseley lived to see an opportunity to escape, which he took, seizing five hostages and raping one before being recaptured.

At his 1984 parole hearing, Moseley announced that he had written to Genovese's relatives and apologized for the "inconvenience" he had caused them. Parole was denied. In 1995, Moseley (now 60) sought a new trial and won a hearing before a federal court. In the end, though, that request was also denied. He lives on as a prisoner in Comstock, N.Y

Christine Silk
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Christine Silk
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