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.