Kitty Genovese and the history of helping

Kitty Genovese, from the New York Times archivesThe latest issue of American Psychologist, 62(6), includes an article questioning the fundamental assumption of an exemplary case in the history of social psychology.

This article argues that an iconic event in the history of helping research–the story of the 38 witnesses who remained inactive during the murder of Kitty Genovese–is not supported by the available evidence. Using archive material, the authors show that there is no evidence for the presence of 38 witnesses, or that witnesses observed the murder, or that witnesses remained inactive. Drawing a distinction between the robust bystander research tradition and the story of the 38 witnesses, the authors explore the consequences of the story for the discipline of psychology. They argue that the story itself plays a key role in psychology textbooks. They also suggest that the story marks a new way of conceptualizing the dangers of immersion in social groups. Finally, they suggest that the story itself has become a modern parable, the telling of which has served to limit the scope of inquiry into emergency helping.

Related resources are provided below.

Kitty Genovese.


  • Cialdini, R. B.  (1980).  Full-cycle social psychology.  Applied Social Psychology Annual, 1, 21-47.

Contends that social psychological investigators should begin work from naturally occurring instances of social phenomena. Progressive steps should then be taken to establish the power, generality, and theoretical/conceptual underpinnings of the phenomenon of interest. Examples of this orientation include (a) work on bystander intervention that was inspired by the Kitty Genovese incident and (b) research on obedience to authority, which was sparked by the Nazi concentration camp phenomenon. The actions of other people or one’s own actions can also provide topics for research: An experience in which the author was persuaded to donate to a charity a second time through the use of the words “even a penny will help” was the impetus for his research on compliance. Another naturally occurring compliance strategy studied by the author was “throwing a low ball,” a pricing technique used by car salespersons. It is argued that natural observation should not only be used to identify effects suitable for research, it should also be used to check on the validity of findings from that experimentation.

  • Cunningham, S.  (1984).  Genovese: 20 years later, few heed a stranger’s cries.  Social Action & the Law, 10(1), 24-25.

Discusses the case of Kitty Genovese, who was stalked and brutally murdered in New York while 38 of her neighbors watched and failed to respond to her screams, as a symbol of the apathy and dehumanizing isolation or urban life. Studies on bystander behavior conducted by behavioral scientists over the past 20 yrs are reviewed, as are changes in laws in recent years that have encouraged mutual responsibility.

  • Greening, T.  (2005).  Commentary.  Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 45(2), 140-143.

The editorial gives an introduction to the various papers discussed in this issue of “Journal of Humanistic Psychology.” The issue begins with an obituary of the eminent psychologist David Bakan. In the next article the authors write about 60 “exemplary altruists.” Since Kitty Genovese’s murder in 1964, special attention has been directed at the presence and absence of altruistic behavior. One of the articles presents a view of Islam and Islamic extremism through an existential lens. The author is well aware of the controversial nature of this topic and has made an effort to be fair, but inevitably his article will create controversy. Another article warns us against the persistent tendency to privilege methods inherited from natural scientific psychology and calls for renewed attention to non-reductionistic human science methods of studying experiencing, whole persons in ways that honor their quests for meaning.

  • Sagarin, B. J. & Lawler-Sagarin, K. A.  (2005).  Critically Evaluating Competing Theories: An Exercise Based on the Kitty Genovese Murder.  Teaching of Psychology, 32(3), 167-169.

We describe an exercise based on the 1964 murder of Catherine Genovese–a murder observed by 38 witnesses, none of whom called the police. Students read a summary of the murder and worked in small groups to design an experiment to test the competing theories for the inaction of the witnesses (Americans’ selfishness and insensitivity vs. diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance). A pretest-posttest assessment revealed a significant increase in students’ ability to design experiments to test competing theories, and anonymous feedback revealed that the exercise encouraged students to appreciate the complexity of trying to explain real-world phenomena.

  • Takooshian, H. & O’Connor, P. J.  (1984).  When apathy leads to tragedy: Two Fordham professors examine “Bad Samaritanism.”.  Social Action & the Law, 10(1), 26-27.

Discusses the case of Kitty Genovese, who was brutally murdered in 1964 while 38 of her neighbors looked on without trying to intervene. Since 1964, research conducted by social scientists has shown that bystanders typically do not intervene when witnessing a possible crime. Whether crime victims have a right to be rescued if there are witnesses present at the time of their crisis is considered. It is concluded that the current legal system protects the criminal more than the victim, effectively discouraging “Good Samaritanism.”


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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