How Much Have We Changed 50 Years After Kitty?

How Much Have We Changed 50 Years After Kitty?

Almost 50 years ago, on March 13, 1964, Catherine Genovese, known as Kitty, was murdered and no one helped:

…the picturesque tranquility of Kew Gardens was shattered by the murder of 28-year-old [Kitty]. The murder was grisly, but it wasn’t the particulars of the killing that became the focus of the case. It was the response of her neighbors. As Ms. Genovese screamed — ”Please help me! Please help me!” — 38 witnesses did nothing to intervene, according to reports; nobody even bothered to call the police. One witness later explained himself with a phrase that has passed into infamy: ”I didn’t want to get involved.”

Fast forward to a recent bullying experiment, UpStanders: Stand Up To Bullying Initiative. In the 5-minute video, very few bystanders who witnessed the obvious, loud and aggressive bullying intervened:

In the Times article referred to above, psychology was cast as playing a prominent role.

Professor Harold Takooshian, Department of Psychology, Fordham University, provided the following comment after the Kitty Genovese homicide: ”It was monumental, nobody really had any idea why people did not help, and conversely why people did help. The psychologists were really stunned by their lack of information on this.”

Social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley reported the following about bystanders:

The greater the number of bystanders who view an emergency, the smaller the chance that any will intervene. People tend to feel a ”diffusion of responsibility” in groups, the two concluded. Kitty Genovese would have been better off, in other words, had one witness seen or heard her attack, rather than the reputed 38.

Latane and Darley proposed a model for helping behavior that consisted of the following five steps:

  • Step One: Does the person notice the event? If yes:
  • Step Two: Does the person interpret the event as needing help? If yes:
  • Step Three: Does the person assume personal responsibility? If yes:
  • Step Four: Does the person decide what to do? If yes:
  • Step Five: Does the person actually do it? If yes:
  • Help is given

The study of prosocial behavior gained impetus following the Kitty Genovese murder.

An overview of prosocial behavior is provided in this reference:

In this article, The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Children (Cambridge Studies in Social and Emotional Development, learning prosocial behavior is addressed:

The authors argue that prosocial behavior can be learned and is modifiable, and they suggest techniques for parents, teachers and others to enhance prosocial development.

The following article focuses on prosocial video games as a learning tool:

The Effects of Prosocial Video Games on Prosocial Behaviors: International Evidence From Correlational, Longitudinal, and Experimental Studies


Although dozens of studies have documented a relationship between violent video games and aggressive behaviors, very little attention has been paid to potential effects of prosocial games. Theoretically, games in which game characters help and support each other in nonviolent ways should increase both short-term and long-term prosocial behaviors. We report three studies conducted in three countries with three age groups to test this hypothesis. In the correlational study, Singaporean middle-school students who played more prosocial games behaved more prosocially. In the two longitudinal samples of Japanese children and adolescents, prosocial game play predicted later increases in prosocial behavior. In the experimental study, U.S. undergraduates randomly assigned to play prosocial games behaved more prosocially toward another student. These similar results across different methodologies, ages, and cultures provide robust evidence of a prosocial game content effect, and they provide support for the General Learning Model.

Does “Affluenza” have a role in prosocial behavior? Affluenza recently caught the eye of the professional and lay communities pursuant to the recent trial of 16-year old Ethan Couch in Texas. Ethan was charged with driving intoxicated and killing four pedestrians. He was sentenced to 10 years of probation instead of up to 20 based on an “Affluenza Defense” that pertains to entitlement and consequential irresponsibility. See

Socioeconomic status was examined in, Having less, giving more: the influence of social class on prosocial behavior:


Lower social class (or socioeconomic status) is associated with fewer resources, greater exposure to threat, and a reduced sense of personal control. Given these life circumstances, one might expect lower class individuals to engage in less prosocial behavior, prioritizing self-interest over the welfare of others. The authors hypothesized, by contrast, that lower class individuals orient to the welfare of others as a means to adapt to their more hostile environments and that this orientation gives rise to greater prosocial behavior. Across 4 studies, lower class individuals proved to be more generous (Study 1), charitable (Study 2), trusting (Study 3), and helpful (Study 4) compared with their upper class counterparts. Mediator and moderator data showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion. Implications for social class, prosocial behavior, and economic inequality are discussed.

Bullying and prosocial behavior was examined in, Active Defending and Passive Bystanding Behavior in Bullying: The Role of Personal Characteristics and Perceived Peer Pressure:


This study examined the role of pro-victim attitudes, personal responsibility, coping responses to observations of bullying, and perceived peer normative pressure in explaining defending the victim and passive bystanding behavior in bullying. A total of 462 Italian early adolescents (mean age=13.4 years, SD=9 months) participated in the study. The behaviors were measured through two informants: each individual student and the teachers. The findings of a series of hierarchical regressions showed that, regardless of the informant, problem solving coping strategies and perceived peer normative pressure for intervention were positively associated with active help towards a bullied peer and negatively related to passivity. In contrast, distancing strategies were positively associated with passive bystanding, whereas they were negatively associated with teacher-reported defending behavior. Moreover, self-reported defending behavior was positively associated with personal responsibility for intervention, but only under conditions of low perceived peer pressure. Finally, the perception of peer pressure for intervention buffered the negative influence of distancing on passive bystanding tendencies. Future directions are discussed.

Empathy presents as a building block of prosocial behavior:

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.

Is empathy sufficient? Probably not. Other factors include modeling, imitation, self-esteem, relationship with the model, and the cost and rewards of helping.

Distinguishing – or perhaps not – the Kitty Genovese murder and behavior of bystanders, and the bullying experiment and bystanders, is something known as a bystander effect:

The term bystander effect refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress. When an emergency situation occurs, observers are more likely to take action if there are few or no other witnesses.

But in Kitty Genovese, the many bystanders were not in view of one another. They also were in the safety of their homes. They were not in the immediate “zone of danger” that may have prompted a “do not intervene” reaction. The killer was armed.

In the bullying experiment, all bystanders were in the “zone.” The bully, a big and scary guy, was unarmed.

There were eight “incidents.” In six there was a single bystander. Only one intervened by pulling out his phone and recording what was going on. This affords a degree of safety but may not stop the assault. In one incident, a female bystander intervened (she touched the aggressor and got in between). In another incident, a female bystander reacted, and immediately after, a male bystander intervened physically. In the latter two incidents the interventions by the bystanders prevented an escalation of the bullying and terminated the behavior. The last incident in the video took place in full view of several bystanders; none intervened. In the first incident, the sole bystander remained seated and did nothing. In the following three incidents, each bystander walked away.

According to Takooshian, there are three types of intervention: deterrence, interruption, and apprehension:

Deterrence is the simplest. “You can stop a crime before it happens,” he says, “by making sure the suspect knows that you are present, aware of the situation, and ready to act.” One subway rider deterred a punk he saw eyeing a woman’s necklace by starting a conversation with the woman, showing that she wasn’t alone. The punk walked away. Another Good Samaritan, seeing a suspicious person stalking an elderly couple, called out, “Hey Lou!” The elderly man turned; the suspect, figuring he was outnumbered, moved on.

Interruption is the next step up. It’s riskier. Once a crime is in progress, a Good Samaritan may divert a bad guy only to be attacked himself. “If you’re going to intervene, you want to do so with minimal risk,” Takooshian says. One woman witnessed a mugging from her apartment window. She opened the window and blew a loud whistle. The mugger ran for cover. Another bystander snapped a picture of a bicycle thief, who fled empty-handed. Takooshian, who once listed legal self-defense tools for bold Samaritans (“pocketknife, hatpin, cane, umbrella, 2-foot chain, rock-in-a-sock, a thick belt, a baseball bat”) now swears by a single hand-held device: “With everybody taking cell-phone photos, interrupting a crime from a safe distance can be easier than ever.”

Apprehension, the riskiest step, calls for what amounts to a citizen’s arrest. The professor recommends such action “only if you are physically and emotionally ready, sure that the suspect has no accomplice nearby.

With Kitty Genovese, the required intervention was “interruption” from the safety of one’s home. In the bullying experiment, “interruption” was riskier because there was a risk to the bystander. In only one of the incidents did the degree of intervention approach “apprehension” when the male bystander actually physically restrained the bully.

In my view, the “interruption” type of intervention described by Takooshian may be partly successful depending on whether or not the incident is stopped.

What about bystanders in a more “modern” form of bullying: cyberbullying? What about prosocial behavior in an era of cyberbulling?

This was examined in, The associations between young adults’ face-to-face prosocial behaviors and their online prosocial behaviors:


Drawing on the co-construction theory (Subrahmanyam, Smahel, & Greenfeld, 2006), this study investigated the relationship between online and face-to-face prosocial behaviors among 493 (345 women) young adults (ages 18–25 years). Findings indicated that face-to-face prosocial behaviors were positively associated with the engagement in online prosocial behaviors through social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, Myspace, Twitter), chat programs (e.g., Google Talk, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger), email, and text messages, after controlling for gender and time spent using each type of technology. These findings extend the application of the co-construction theory to online prosocial behaviors. Furthermore, these findings suggest that the internet is also a place for positive interactions and call for more research investigating online prosocial behaviors.

Takooshian provided an up to date review of the Kitty Genovese debacle in The 1964 Kitty Genovese Tragedy: Still a Valuable Parable, a critique of two Kitty Genovese books:

What are the similarities between the Kitty Genovese murder and bullying experiment separated by almost 50 years? What will it take to prevent another Kitty Genovese incident?  What will it take to prevent face-to-face bullying? What will it take to prevent cyberbullying, an arena in which cyberbullies are afforded far more Internet and technological protections? In a day and era in which “bullying” has spawned so much attention and increasing legal consequences, and has become a buzz word, considerable more research is warranted.


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