When teaching ethics courses, I often spend some time with students going over some of the relevant social psychological literature.  Studies like the Milgram experimients, the Asch conformity experiments, and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment are nice ways to show students, well, just how mean and stupid people can be.  It’s a nice way of showing the importance of ethical learning, but also the insufficiency of mere ethical knowledge in producing ethical behavior.

Turns out, however, that one of my favorite examples is a myth.  Kitty Genovese, we all know, was attacked three times over the course of more than a half an hour, all in an alley in the sight of 38 witnesses, none of whom did as much as lift up the phone to call for help.  A powerful indictment of humanity, and strong evidence of what psychologists have called the "bystander effect," right?

Well, yes and no.  According to an article published by Rachel Manning, Mark Levine and Alan Collins last September in American Psychologist (p. 555-562, subscription required), much of the story as it is reported by social psychology textbooks (and I suspect ethics textbooks and professors as well) is false.  The key findings, derived from examination of court transcripts from the trial of assailant Winston Moseley  and from research by local historian Joseph De May Jr., are as follows:

  • There were only two attacks, not three
  • Not all 38 witnesses were eye witnesses (some only heard the attack), and it’s not really clear that 38 is an accurate number anyway
  • No one could have watched the attack in its entirety, since the second attack occured in a closed stairway and not in the alley where it began
  • Witnesses have given signed statements claiming that they did call the police

That last finding, of course, is the most significant.  The article points out that there was no 911 system when the attack occured in 1964, and so there is no objective record to confirm or deny these witness’ claims.  However, the fact that Kitty’s attackers fled and then returned to continue the attack does lend support to those witnesses who claimed that they shouted at the attackers in an attempt to scare them off.  Furthermore, when one considers the fact that after the first attack, Kitty got up and walked around the corner of the alley and into the stairway where she was out of sight and earshot of most of the witnessess, the lack of follow-up response appears somewhat less shocking.

What does all this show?  Probably not much more than that people are willing to believe a good story without much data.  It does not, CNN’s headline to the contrary, cast doubt upon the validity of the bystander effect.  The Genovese case spurred interest in the bystander effect, to be sure, but evidence for that cases is abundant, and the controlled experiments of Darley and Latané provide much better data than a single case study ever could. 

So don’t worry, teachers of ethics.  Even if we lose the Genovese case,  there’s still plenty of other evidence of the meanness and stupidity of humanity.

One Reply to “Not Such Crooked Timber After All?”

  1. I stumbled on the same thing last fall and was surprised to find out how wrong the tale of Kitty Genovese really is.
    The source of the misinformation is actually the NY TImes article that first ran about the murder (Martin Gansberg, March 27, 1964, “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police; Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector 37 SAW MURDER BUT DIDN’T CALL Path of Victim: Stabber’s Third Attack Was Fatal”). It seems that the police and public really thought no one had called or done much of anything.
    It might be interesting to try to figure out why they got that perception. Did the neighbors who failed to stop the murder feel so guilty about not doing enough that they pretended to have done nothing?

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