The Case Of Kitty Genovese And Dissemination Of Responsibility

When there are many people watching, nobody helps those who need it. Why?

In 1964, the Kitty Genovese case made   the news in New York and made the front page of the Times . The 29-year-old girl returned from work at 3 in the morning and parked her car near the building where she lived. There, she was attacked by a mentally deranged man who stabbed her in the back several times. The girl screamed and one of the neighbors heard the scream. The neighbor just tried to drive the killer away from his window. “Leave the girl alone!” But he did not come to her rescue or call the police. The killer left temporarily, while Kitty crawled, bleeding, toward her building. 

The murderer returned minutes later when the girl was already at the door of the building. He stabbed her repeatedly as she screamed. When she was dying, he raped her and stole $49 from her. The entire event lasted approximately 30 minutes. No neighbor intervened and only one called the police to report that a woman had been beaten. According to the New York Times , up to 40 neighbors heard the screams. According to official records, there were 12. In the case of Kitty Genovese, it is irrelevant whether there were 40 people or 12. What is relevant is: why don’t we help when we know that a person needs help?

Kitty Genovese and the spread of responsibility

Kitty Genovese’s case is extreme; however, we live surrounded by situations in which we ignore the help that a person needs. We have become accustomed to walking among the homeless, ignoring requests for help, hearing screams that are not helped, avoiding screams that can make us suspect that there is domestic violence or against children. We know that not only murders but mistreatment occur every day. On many occasions, very close to us. 

What is it that leads us to evade our responsibility? Do we really have that responsibility? What psychological mechanisms are involved in helping processes?


The death of Kitty Genovese helped social psychologists ask themselves these questions and begin to investigate. From these studies emerged the Theory of Diffusion of Responsibility (Darley and Latané, in 1968), which explained what really happens in these situations, from the phase in which we realize or not that there is a person who she needs help, to the decisions we make to help her or not.

The hypothesis of these authors was that the number of people involved influences decision-making to help. In other words, the more people we think may be witnessing this situation, the less responsible we feel to help. Perhaps this is why we do not usually give help on the street, where there is a great traffic of people, even if someone needs help, just as we ignore very extreme situations of poverty. This mode of apathy ends up transforming into a kind of passive aggressiveness, since by not helping when necessary and responsible, we really collaborate in a certain way with that crime or social injustice. The researchers conducted a multitude of experiments and were able to prove that their hypothesis was true. Now, are there more factors involved besides the number of people?

First of all, are we aware that there is a helping situation? Our personal beliefs are the first factor to help or not. When we consider the person who needs help as the only one responsible, we tend not to help. Here the factor of similarity comes into play: whether this person is similar to us or not. This is the reason why certain social classes do not lend themselves to help others, since they consider them far from their status (which is a form of social prejudice, a small form of madness far from human empathy and sensitivity).

Helping or not helping depends on several factors

If we are able to detect a situation where a person needs help and we consider that we should help them, then cost and benefit mechanisms come into play. Can I really help this person? What am I going to gain from it? What can I lose? Will I be harmed for trying to help? Again, this decision making is influenced by our current culture, which is excessively pragmatic and increasingly individualistic and insensitive.

Finally, when we know we can help and are willing to help, we ask ourselves: should it be me? Isn’t there someone else? In this phase, fear of the responses of others plays a special role. We think that others may judge us for wanting to help someone, or consider us similar to the person who needs help (the belief that “only a drunk would approach another drunk”).

The main reasons for avoiding the responsibility of providing help

Beyond Darley and LatanĂ©’s Diffusion Theory of Responsibility, today we know that our modern culture plays a key role in repressing our pro-social behavior, a way of being totally natural in human beings, since we are human beings. Sensitive, social and empathic by nature (we are all born with these skills and we develop them or not depending on our culture). These are the locks to help:

1. Am I really responsible for what happens and should I help? (belief derived from modern classism, a social prejudice)

2. Am I qualified to do it? (belief derived from our  fear )

3. Will it be bad for me to help? (belief derived from our fear and also from the influence of modern classism)

4. What will others say about me? (fear, by how our self-concept will be affected, a mode of selfishness)

All these blocks can be left behind if we consider that we are beings capable of helping, responsible to do so as social and human beings, and above all, that our benefit is the fact of helping beyond what happens to other people. Remember that leadership is the ability to positively influence others, so it is quite likely that the mere fact that one person helps another will inspire others to do so.


And you? Do you evade your responsibility, or do you face it? What would you do if you detect a dangerous situation for another person? How would you like to help others? Do you already? How?

For a more humane world, welcome to the world of pro-social responsibility.

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