The Genovese Case, A Turning Point in Social Psychology

Generally, we're a sociable species, with qualities of empathy and cooperation. However, the Genovese case proved to be a turning point in the field of social psychology. It led to the understanding of certain environmental factors that influence whether we actually help or not in moments of crisis.
The Genovese Case, A Turning Point in Social Psychology

Last update: 17 August, 2021

The Genovese case shocked the American public in 1964. In addition, it gave rise to several investigations in the field of social psychology. However, today, there are some aspects of this case that don’t seem to be as true as they appeared to be at the time. Therefore, from what we know today, we’ll review this emblematic case.

Even though the facts were chilling, it wasn’t the facts, in themselves, that made this case famous. Actually, it was an article by Martin Ginsburg that appeared in the prestigious newspaper, The New York Times. In his article, Ginsburg wasn’t referring so much to what had occurred. Instead, he was explaining the reactions of the witnesses.

Thanks to this article, the Genovese case has been analyzed from two points of view. One is that of people’s reaction to violent acts against a victim. The other is the way in which the press constructs narratives that have little or nothing to do with the facts. Let’s look into this.

Men are rich only by what they give. He who gives great service gets great reward.”

-Elbert Hubbard-

A pile of newspapers.

The Genovese Case

The Genovese case refers to the murder of Catherine Susan Genovese. It happened on March 13, 1964, in New York. Catherine was a 29-year-old woman who lived with her partner in an apartment in Queens, New York City. She was working as a manager in a bar in the same area.

On that evening, Kitty, (her nickname), as always, left her work after midnight. She then drove to her home and parked 30 yards from the building where she lived. As she walked toward her apartment, a man stabbed her with a knife in three places. During the attack, she tried to flee and started to scream.

Several neighbors heard her scream for help. Actually, some of them even looked out of their windows. After the attack, the assailant escaped in a car. It’s not clear if some neighbors called the police, but they certainly didn’t show up. Perhaps nobody actually called them.

A photo of Catherine Genovese.

The second attack

Nearly 10 minutes went by and Kitty was able to crawl toward the entrance to her building. However, she was badly hurt and wasn’t able to make it to her door. Unfortunately, the attacker returned and stabbed her again. She was left lying on the ground.

Apparently, she tried to defend herself without success. While she was dying, the murderer raped her and then robbed her of 49 dollars.

One witness who’d seen part of the crime called the police who came quickly. However, sadly, Catherine Genovese died on the way to the hospital in an ambulance. Days later, the journalist, Martin Ginsburg, published an article called 38 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police. He was referring to the witnesses. 

The article made a rudimentary narration of the facts. It focused on the reaction or the lack of reaction of the witnesses. It referred to a badly wounded woman who asked for help and the many people who ignored her cries. In fact, the article stated that one individual actually turned up the volume on their television set to avoid hearing the screams.

A dark street in New York City where the Genovese case may have ocurred.

Apathy and manipulation

Inspired by the Genovese case, two researchers published their theory of the diffusion of responsibility in 1968. They were Darley and Latane who established the idea of the bystander effect. Basically, this supports the premise that when there are many witnesses to a crime or violence, people are less likely to feel any sense of responsibility. Because of this, they’re less inclined to intervene.

Generally speaking, the researchers pointed out that this is because as humans, we tend to act in such  a way that economizes our resources. In addition, many people tend to believe that among the witnesses, there’ll always be someone better equipped to help than them. They also want to avoid identifying with the victim and wish to “avoid problems”.

However, around 2014, experts discovered that the Ginsburg article contained many inaccuracies. First of all, there weren’t 38 witnesses, but probably only 12. Secondly, none of them had seen everything. In fact, the majority of them weren’t even aware that Catherine had been stabbed. Furthermore, almost all of them thought that the man was only hitting her and her life wasn’t in danger. According to the location of their homes, their versions are credible.

This brings us to the conclusion that big cities dehumanize us. Also, there’s a sector of the press that seeks to capitalize on violent news. They tend to focus on it in a  gory and deceiving way in order to generate a greater impact. As a result, they obtain a wider audience.

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  • Molero, C., Candela, C., & Cortés, M. T. (1999). La conducta prosocial: una visión de conjunto. Revista latinoamericana de psicología, 31(2), 325-353.