Does the case of Kitty Genovese provide sufficient evidence for the ‘Bystander Effect’?


Although Case Studies have been largely criticised for being unscientific and unreliable, there are some instances where they have been incredibly beneficial to psychological theories. Classic case studies by Sigmund Freud such as Little Hans and Anna O have given psychologists information that has created what we know as psychology today. A less well known case study is that of the murder of Kitty Genovese, the findings from which were used to create and explain the ‘Bystander Effect’.

The ‘Bystander effect’ or ‘Genovese syndrome’ was theorised by John Darley and Bibb Latane in 1968 (Psychology, Eighth Edition). They focused on the case of Kitty Genovese, who was attacked and murdered near her home in Queens, New York. During her murder, many of her neighbours could hear or see her being attacked. What psychologists were interested in was why no one thought to help.

Despite what is commonly believed, larger numbers of bystanders actually decrease the likelihood of someone stepping forward to help a victim (Darley, 1968). Reasons for this are believing that others will know what to do or believing that others will help. The Kitty Genovese case thus became a classic feature of social psychology textbooks. This is a clear example of a case study offering support for a theory; the reactions of the neighbours were completely natural and not forced. Although the results cannot be replicated, they offer detail and depth which cannot be created artificially.

 However, the evidence for this study was largely based on newspaper reports from the New York Times. The American Psychologist (2007) published an examination of the factual basis of coverage of the Kitty Genovese murder in psychology textbooks. This journal concluded that the story of Kitty is more parable that fact, largely because of inaccurate newspaper coverage at the time. Even with a lack of evidence, this study is included in our social psychology textbooks today.

Feminists such as psychologist Frances Cherry (1995) have suggested that the concept of the Bystander Effect is incomplete, pointing out that people are unlikely to intervene if they believed that the argument was occurring between a man and his wife (Shotland, 1976).

Although this research has offered an insight into peoples natural reactions, a lack of control means that there is low reliabilty, and thus low validity. The results may only be representative of the people living in this certain area of New York, meaning that the findings are not generalisable to a larger population. It is clear that this case, however interesting it may be, does not provide sufficient evidence to support the bystander effect theory. Therefore, more research needs to be done in order for psychologists to further understand human behaviour.


Cherry, F. (1995) The Stubborn Particulars of Social Psychology: Essays on the research process.

Darley,J (1968) American Scientist 1969

Gleitman, H, Gross, J & Reisberg, D. (2008) Psychology, Eighth Edition. 532-533

Manning, R.; Levine, M; Collins, A (2007). “The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping: The parable of the 38 witnesses”. American Psychologist 62 (6): 555–562.

Shotland, R. L.; Straw, M. K. (1976). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34: 990–9.


3 responses »

  1. The tragic case of Kitty Genovese is just one of numerous examples of the bystander effect. As recently as a year ago there was a woman raped in broad daylight on a busy street and cars continued to just drive past, though several drivers called 911 no-one stopped to help the woman. This could be due to ‘diffusion of responsibility’ which occurs when many witnesses are present, yet each witness assumes that someone else will respond/has already responded to the emergency Latane (1981).
    Even after the assailant fled, she asked a pedestrian to borrow their mobile phone call for help but they kept on walking. Which could be down to environmental factors, people are less likely to help in urban areas than in rural areas, Milgram (1970) suggested that it was due to urban areas being more impersonal due to being largely populated.


    Gleitman, H., Gross, J., & Reisberg, D.(2010). Psychology. 532-533. London: W.W. Norton & Company

    Milgram, S.(1970).The experience of living in cities. Science. 167 (3924). 1461-1468. DOI: 10.1126/science.167.3924.1461

  2. The bystander effect is a notoriously difficult one to analyse and unfortunately I would conclude that the Genovese case would not provide solid evidence for it alone. Large amounts of anecdotal evidence can be in other cases not specifically analysing the effect, such as in 2011 on the Channel 4 programme “Derren Brown: The Experiments”, in the episode “The Assassin”. In this, a member of the audience during Stephen Fry’s lecture in a theatre, fired a gun with blanks at Fry, allegedly under hypnosis. Fry, who was in on the experiment, acted as if he really had been shot multiple times, even concealing blood bags under his clothes to imitate real bullet wounds. His audience however, was totally unaware of the set up, and believed it to be real. Most notably, not a single member of the audience reacted in any other way that to jump in their seat at the sound of gun shot, murmur nervously to each other while a ‘dying’ Fry lay on stage, and look around. No one went for help or to help Fry themselves. This, although not carried out for the purpose of reviewing audience reaction, gave a helpful insight as to whether this effect has any basis, and is surprisingly scientifically valid as the audience or acidental participants were completely naive to the experiment or that there were even cameras recording them.

    ‘Derren Brown: The Experiments. Episode 1 The Assassin.’ as found on Oct 28 2011.

  3. Quite a few studies have been done to help provide evidence for this theory. One of the first is a study by Darley and Latané who measured the amount of time it took students to help a fellow student who appeared to be having an epilectic fit. They found that if the student was alone they reacted much faster than kids in groups of up to 6.

    However I agree that more research should be done into this topic as there are a vast amount of factors attributed to bystander theory that need to be researched. An interesting study by Cramer shows that nurses showed a significantly higher rate of helping a bystander compared passer-bys with less medical knowledge. This shows that competence effects the bystander effect as some people may not act due to a lack of knowledge about how to act as well as a fear that they’ll look incompetent if they do something wrong.

    Cramer, R. E. (1988), Subject Competence and Mlnlmlzatlon of the Bystander Effect
    Darley and Latané (1968) Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

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