Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Kitty Genovese Murder

The Kitty Genovese Syndrome

By mid-April, the Kitty Genovese story had taken hold and the nation began a lengthy period of analysis and self-deprecation. Why would civilized people turn away from another human being in dire need of assistance? As the details of the killing emerged, it became plain that if any one of the 38 witnesses had simply called the police at the first sign of trouble, the victim could have survived. The initial stab wounds inflicted may not have been fatal. Timely medical treatment could have saved the life of Catherine Genovese.

Photo: The Kew Gardens LIRR station located just off Austin Street. (photo by author)
Photo: The Kew Gardens LIRR
station located just off Austin
Street. (photo by author)

Were the witnesses really that cold-hearted? People wondered. Some psychologists blamed television for the sad state of affairs in Kew Gardens. In a symposium held in Manhattan's Barbizon Plaza Hotel in early April 1964, psychiatrist Ralph S. Banay said television was at least partly to blame. "We underestimate the damage that these accumulated images do to the brain," he said, "The immediate effect can be delusional, equivalent to a sort of post-hypnotic suggestion." The witnesses became confused, and paralyzed by the violence they witnessed outside their window, he explained. "They were fascinated by the drama, by the action, and yet not entirely sure that what was taking place was actually happening," he said.

That explanation fit in neatly with what some of the witnesses had told police. They claimed that when they saw the disturbance on Austin Street, they imagined it was an argument between man and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend. None really thought that they were witnessing a real killing. "We thought it was a lover's quarrel," one witness said later. Another neighbor repeated that assertion when he said, "I thought they were some kids having some fun!" Others complained of the media attention and said the press made the neighborhood look bad. "These things happen every day all over the world," one neighbor told a reporter, "The stories were only giving us a black eye!"

Dr. Karl Menninger, a world-renowned psychiatrist and founder of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, also spoke at the symposium. "Public apathy to crime is itself a manifestation of aggressiveness," he told the audience. People turn away for a variety of reasons, including their desire "not to get involved."

But were people in big cities more apathetic, colder and indifferent than others in more rural environments? Or was the "Kitty Genovese Syndrome," as some psychologists characterized it, indicative of society as a whole?

One dynamic brought forth was the Bystander Effect. This theory speculates that as the "number of bystanders increases, the likelihood of any one bystander helping another decreases." As a result, additional time will pass before anyone seeks outside help for a person in distress. Another hypothesis is something called the Diffusion of Responsibility. This is simply a decrease in the feeling of personal responsibility one feels when in the presence of many other people. The greater the number of bystanders, the less responsibility the individual feels. In cases where there are many people present during an emergency, it becomes much more likely that any one individual will simply do nothing.

In essence, the 38 witnesses felt no responsibility to act because there were so many witnesses. Each one felt that the other witness would do something. Social psychology research supports the notion that Catherine Genovese had a better chance of survival if she had been attacked in the presence of just one witness.

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'