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Bystander Effect; the Genovese Syndrome

The Genovese Syndrome up for Debate


By Joshua Hill —— Bio and Archives--October 3, 2007

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Stabbed to death in 1964, Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese has the unfortunate honor of providing psychologists with the nickname to the Bystander Effect; the Genovese Syndrome.

The original story goes that as she was walking home through her Kew Gardens neighborhood shortly after 3 am, after finishing a late shift at a Queens bar, Kitty was randomly attacked by one Winston Moseley.

Initially stabbed twice in the back by Moseley, she was able to flee after a neighbor in a ten-story building shouted down to the attacker to “leave that girl alone.”  However,  Moseley waited for her in the rear foyer of her apartment and finished what he had started.

Aged 72 and still serving time in prison after multiple rejected parole attempts, Moseley has provided Joseph DeMay, a New York historian and attorney, with the description of the events that challenge what was commonly held as truth at the time, and subsequently the basis of the nickname.

At the time, an article in the Times was released two weeks after the event, and described “For more than half an hour,  thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens ...Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”

The reality of the matter is that only a half dozen witnesses were ever found and there were only the two attacks, not three.

Now this may only seem like it is a revision to history, but the fact is that it affects the groundings on which the nickname “Genovese Syndrome” was built.

In a quick lesson in psychology 101, the Bystander Effect is a psychological phenomenon in which a person is less likely to intervene in an emergency situation if there are more people around. The Bystander Intervention, the obvious opposite of this, is proven to occur when there are little to no other people around.

Obviously, the original reports of Kitty Genovese’s attack are reason enough to dub this phenomenon the “Genovese Syndrome”, but looking back in hindsight, the name may have no grounding in reality.

“The 38 witnesses story ... has had such a powerful impact on this research tradition that the way in which groups might make a positive contribution to intervention has been largely ignored,” said psychology professor Rachel Manning of the University of the West of England.

Manning, along with Mark Levine and Alan Collins of Lancaster University, suggest in an American Psychologis article are behind the rewriting of this historical case, saying that it is “not supported by the available evidence.”

However, that being said, Manning doesn’t believe their article will change much for the future. “Once such ‘facts’ become generally accepted,” Manning said, “they are often difficult to correct.”

Joshua Hill, a Geek’s-Geek from Melbourne, Australia, Josh is an aspiring author with dreams of publishing his epic fantasy, currently in the works, sometime in the next 5 years. A techie, nerd, sci-fi nut and bookworm.



Guest Column Joshua Hill -- Bio and Archives | Comments

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