Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

11 Murder Witnesses Who Didn’t Call Police

On a cold winter night in 1964, Kitty Genovese parked a stone’s throw away from her New York appartment. She got out of the car, but never made it home.

As she walked across the street, a strange man approached her. 

Genovese took no chances and ran.

She dashed halfway down the block before the man caught up with her. He then stabbed her four times beneath a bright street light.

Her screams echoed through the street.

The lights of the surrounding homes sprang on. And one man who lived on the seventh floor opened his window and yelled down, “Leave that girl alone!”

The attacker scurried away. And Genovese slowly stumbled toward the back entrance of her building—still screaming.

Nobody helped. And nobody called the police.

The assailant returned ten minutes later, wearing a wide-brimmed hat to disguise his face. 

Witnesses saw him carefully scan the area and walk toward Genovese’s building.

That’s where he found a half-dead Genovese.

The fiend took out his knife and finished the job. 

In total, a dozen people saw the attack that spanned over 30 minutes. And at least two people recognised she was being stabbed.

Why didn’t they call the police?

That’s what two psychologists called John Darley and Bibb Latané set out to answer.

Darley and Latané thought up several situations to see how people responded to ambiguous emergencies.

The most telling was the fire experiment. 

A lone student was told to sit in a room and fill in a questionnaire. A few minutes in, smoke was blown underneath the doorway.

Almost every test subject got up and out of the room to report the incident.

But things changed as soon as the student faced the smoke with two blasé actors. Now over half the guinea pigs continued to fill out the questionnaire as the smoke filled the room.

This and other bystander experiments of Darley and Latané show that we give up responsibility in groups.

When nobody makes a fuss of smoke, a warning siren, or a screaming lady in the street, we assume there is no problem. Or we assume someone else will deal with the problem.

The more bystanders witness an emergency, the less likely people will call for help.

So had Kitty Genovese been attacked in a peaceful town with few inhabitants, she may have still been alive today.

P.S. Do you still think you’ll always help a screaming stranger if others are around to help too? If so, you didn’t get the point. Darley and Latané’s work reveals an unpleasant part of human nature of which you and I are not exempt: being in company lowers everyone’s sense of responsibility. 

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach