Remembering Kitty Genovese

KittyGenovese.jpgKitty Genovese was murdered outside her apartment block in 1964 by a stranger. The story of her death had a massive influence on psychology, leading to the description of the bystander effect – where people are less likely to intervene in an emergency when they’re in groups as when they are alone.

This arose from the reports that Kitty was killed in sight of 38 of her neighbours, who all assumed that someone else would help or phone the police while she was being fatally stabbed. In the event, she died shortly after.

Like several other founding myths in psychology (such as the stories of Phineas Gage and Little Albert) the truth of Kitty’s murder is not as clear-cut as the textbooks make out.

The ‘bystander effect’ itself is considered to be real. With additional people comes a ‘diffusion of responsibility’ that makes it less likely that individuals feel a personal responsibility to take action.

Nevertheless, the popular story of the the murder is likely to have been muddied.

Joe De May, a current resident of the same apartment block that Kitty lived in, has pieced together a careful account of the murder from news reports and court documents.

It turns out that it is unlikely that Kitty’s murder was witnessed by nearly 40 people who did not act. In fact, only two clear witnesses to the attack were ever found. There are many more details which seem to have made their way into the media, and then into psychological myth, that probably never occurred.

A recent twist saw Kitty’s story told by her girlfriend and lover, Mary Ann Zielonko, in a recent radio interview. Mary Ann describes the Kitty Genovese that is missing from the textbooks, and how her death affected those left behind.

Sadly, Kitty’s death is no less tragic for this historical debunking, and it is no less tragic that the ‘bystander effect’ occurs all too often when people are in trouble.

Link to audio of radio programme ‘Remembering Kitty Genovese’.
Link to Joe De May’s investigation into the case (via MeFi).
Link to Wikipedia page on Kitty Genovese.

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