Kitty Genovese and the 38 silent witnesses – the power of a narrative to incorrectly shape half a century of research

Nick IngramStrategy0 Comments

Genovese

Last week Winston Moseley, convicted of the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, died in prison at the age of 81. In the words of Kitty Genovese’s brother, Moseley’s death marks “maybe, the final chapter in the tragic story of the events of the early morning of Friday, March 13, 1964”.

If you’ve done any study in the social sciences, it’s odds on you’ll know who Kitty Genovese is. I still remember learning about her in Psychology in the late 80s. Even today her murder is discussed with undergraduate students. Her’s is the archetypal and original example of the Bystander Effect. People are less likely to come to your aid if there are lots of other people around. It’s as if responsibility is diffused within the group – and no-one does anything to help.

Genovese was chased and attacked over a period of half an hour early in the morning of March 13th 1964 in a neighbourhood of Queens in New York City. That much is not in dispute. As the standard narrative then goes – and this is the narrative taught to every first year Psychology student – she died after having called for help multiple times, and after people hearing and seeing the attack – but without anyone coming to her aid. The New York Times set this narrative up with their report of the murder two weeks later:

“For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law‐abiding cit­izens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the po­lice during the assault; one wit­ness called after the woman was dead.”

And so the “Parable of the 38 silent witnesses” was born. In a fascinating 2007 article in American Psychologist Manning, Levine and Collins observe “almost from its inception, the story of the 38 witnesses became a kind of modern parable—the antonym of the parable of the good Samaritan. Whereas the good Samaritan parable venerates the individual who helps while others walk by, the story of the 38 witnesses in psychology tells of the malign influence of others to overwhelm the will of the individual”.

This 2007 article goes on to question this dominant narrative. The authors, after a lot of research, demonstrate that the standard version of Genovese’s murder doesn’t rest on a strong foundation. They conclude: “Thus, the three key features of the Kitty Genovese story that appear in social psychology textbooks (that there were 38 witnesses, that the witnesses watched from their windows for the duration of the attack, and that the witnesses did not intervene) are not supported by the available evidence.”

There’s too much detail in the American Psychologist article to summarise here, a few points will have to suffice:

  • There doesn’t seem to have been anywhere near 38 witnesses.
  • Most of the witnesses couldn’t see anything at all.
  • Some, from what they saw, would conclude that nothing wrong was happening.
  • A number of people seemed to have called the police while the attack was in progress (which raises another question about why the police didn’t immediately intervene).
  • And one lady, at considerable risk to herself, came to Genovese’s aid and held her while she died.

But despite its shaky foundations, this modern parable has persisted. And, it would seem, this narrative has shaped the direction of research into crowds and groups for over 50 years in unhelpful ways. This is a great example of the hold a narrative can exercise on the personal and professional imagination – shaping choices and actions for decades. The American Psychologist article points to a number of consequences for subsequent research from the persistence of this narrative:

  1. The narrative confirmed the professional psychological suspicion that crowds are untrustworthy. Up until 1964 crowds were seen to be able to exert a negative influence on the actions of individuals – getting them to do bad things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Now crowds were also seen to have a negative influence on the inaction of individuals – preventing them from doing the positive thing they would otherwise do.
  2. The narrative allowed the gendered nature of the crime to not be addressed. It would seem that the police didn’t respond because it was seen as a domestic dispute.
  3. And finally, the psychological wellness of the perpetrator, and the role of mental health services in prevention of violence, was able to be ignored in research.

In other words, the narrative – through the shock of trying to understand the inaction of 38 people – both confirmed prejudices and allowed other uncomfortable questions to go unaddressed.

Don’t get me wrong. The Bystander Effect is one of the most well documented effects in psychology. But, its discovery would seem to be an accident, a bit like penicillin, in that the original example that prompted all the research on it was probably not an example at all.

The “opportunity cost” of this narrative is worth considering. The American Psychologist article asks whether the shape of research into individuals and groups might have been different without this dominant narrative. For example, there has been comparatively little research into how group dynamics can influence individuals to act virtuously. Rather the emphasis has been on the negative effects of groups on individuals. I wonder what insights we have missed about the positive roles of groups in business and change management, because of the misreporting of the New York Times in 1964.

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