The Genovese Syndrome: When Nobody Helps

The following is reprinted from Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again

The stabbing of Kitty Genovese lasted 50 minutes was witnessed by 38 people. Surely someone would pick up the phone and call the police, right? Wrong: here's the infamous story of what happened when good people stood by and did nothing.

Kitty Genovese got home from work very late. As a bar manager, she had to close and clean up before she could head home to her Queens, New York, apartment. Usually her late hours were no problem. But on March 13, 1964, when the 28-year-old, 105-pound (48 kg) Genovese parked her car at 3 a.m., there was someone waiting for her. As Kitty began to walk toward her home, the man waylaid and stabbed her.


She shrieked in terror, "Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Please help me!" Genovese's neighbors in the snug apartment complex, many of whom knew her, turned on their lights and opened their apartment windows. One male neighbor shouted from his window, "Leave that girl alone!" Kitty's attacker left. She began staggering to her apartment, bleeding from several stab wounds, while her neighbors shut their windows and turned off their lights. Kitty no doubt thought the worst was over. But her attacker returned and stabbed her again. "I'm dying!" she screamed. Her neighbors threw open their windows again, but nobody came out ot help. Kitty's attacker got into a car and drove away. Kitty crawled into the vestibule of an apartment house and lay there bleeding for several minutes. At this point she might still have lived. But once again her assailant returned. He cut off her underpants and bra, sexually assaulted her, and took the $49 from her wallet before stabbing her one last, fatal time. It was not until 3:50 a.m., a full 50 minutes after the attack began, that a neighbor called police. Two minutes later, police arrived to find Kitty's body.

Crime scene photo showing the first and second attacks of Kitty Genovese


Police questioned Genovese's neighbors and discovered that at least 38 people had witnessed the killer attacking Genovese, yet no one tried to intervene. Only one had called the police - after Kitty was already dead. The public reacted with horror and mystifiction. Why on earth would 38 people, who could easily and safely have picked up the phone and helped, ignored a dying woman's calls of distress? The story caused deep rumbles in the psyche of Americans who were shocked and frightened by the spectre of their own dark sides - and the ultimate in big-city alienation. Would they, in the same situation, have helped? The neighbors offered numerous excuses for their behavior. They hadn't wanted to get involved, they said. They could see that others were witnessing the crime - surely those people were calling the police. Some claimed they feared for their own safety: others worried that their English wasn't up to the job of making a phone call. One heartless soul merely said, "I was tired." Another alleged that she didn't want to interfere in what she thought was a lover's quarrel." Police admitted that there was no law forcing witness to call for help. So the crime that the neighbors were guilty of, if any, was a moral one.


The murderer was caught less than a week later. He readily admitted to killing Kitty Genovese, as well as two other local women, claiming he had an "uncontrollable urge to kill." In June 1964, 29-year-old Winston Moseley was found guilty, and he remains in state prison to this day. But Kitty Genovese has not been forgotten. The case has lived on in plays and TV dramas - it even spawned a whole new branch of psychology. When experts refer to the Genovese syndrome, they're theorizing that the neighbors' failure to act was due to "diffusion of responsibility" - there were so many people watching the crime that no one person felt they had any personal responsibility, because they were sure that someone else would do something. The case is still taught in every Psych 101 class in the country. Which is not much of a consolation for poor Kitty.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again. The book is a compendium of entertaining information chock-full of facts on a plethora of history topics. Uncle John's first plunge into history was a smash hit - over half a million copies sold! And this seque gives you more colorful characters, cultural milestones, historical hindsights, groundbreaking events, and scintillating sagas. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute

Neatorama Note: Though the article outlined the Kitty Genovese story as it is generally accepted, more recent analysis of the case turned up discrepancies, such as a neighbor trying to call the police and was rudely dismissed, and sensationalization of newspaper accounts. For more information, check out: - Kitty Genoves [wikipedia] - Genovese syndrome: Fact or Fiction? - Kitty Genovese, the popular account is mostly wrong at A Picture History of Kew Gardens, NY

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it is because i read this story as a kid, that i always call for help when witnessing an event that requires it. even if i see other people on cell phones - i don't assume they're calling for help...they could just be calling a friend. a few times i've called 911 and they have told me that someone has already reported this and help is enroute. they then thank me for calling and that's it. don't worry about duplicating calls - worry about the fact that perhaps no one else has called in yet.
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Of course no one helped. There was nothing in it for them. The act of helping others has been one of selfish motivation for centuries. The logic is "if I help them they will owe me, and *I* get any and all recognition or potential accolades." However, the energy factor is considered. "How much will I have to do to help this person?" That's why you see a lot more people lifting a box for the elderly than helping someone who is being murdered - way too much energy for the payoff.

Sad, but oh so true.
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The best way to avoid diffusion of responsibility is - not surprisingly - to assume others won't act, and make a plan to act if you are in a similar situation.
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I've got to say of all the articles I have read on Neatorama this one is pure sensationalism and poorly researched. A typical Neatorama article would have addressed the myth as well as a reasoned review of the facts. Instead, we get the media's sensationalized account and a few links (one of which doesn't work)at the end mentioning possible discrepancies.

For a better understanding try this link:
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