The New York Times/Redux
The truth is that several people did call for help when they
heard Kitty Genovese’s screams.
in between, argues Levine. When the first attack happened, on
Austin Street, a shout from a window scared Moseley away. In
addition, a retired police officer recalls that, as a boy, he saw
Genovese staggering down Austin Street and Moseley fleeing
in the opposite direction, and that his father called the police.
Others have also said that they called, Levine adds.
As Genovese made her unsteady way around the corner and
down an alley to the back vestibule of the building where she lived,
Moseley returned and attacked her again — out of sight of the
Austin Street windows, says Levine. A man whose apartment had
a view of the second stabbing contacted another resident, who
immediately called the police, according to the trial. That woman
then rushed to the mortally wounded Genovese, holding her in her
arms until the ambulance came, according to trial testimony.
Despite that evidence, Bibb Latane, PhD, whose research on the
bystander effect was inspired by the events, says that many of the
trial’s witnesses could have revised their stories to make themselves
seem more caring. “They had a strong reason to sort their memories
and say that they weren’t such bad guys after all,” he says.
Latane further disputes Levine and his colleagues’
Regardless of how many witnesses to Genovese’s murder stood
methodology. “Here are three psychologists in England
purporting to analyze history and newspaper accounts and even
some sociology that they have no expertise in, purporting to
claim that [New York Times editor] A.M. Rosenthal and the crack
staff of The New York Times had it wrong.”
Levine, however, defends the conclusion that the oft-told
Genovese story distorts the facts. “Several people besides us —
even Americans, journalists for The New York Times and National
Public Radio — have made exactly the same points,” he says.
idle, Latane’s and others’ research on the bystander effect has
stood the test of time and peer review — showing, for example,
that groups are less likely to help someone in trouble than a lone
individual (Psychological Bulletin, 1982). However, recent research
suggests that the picture may be more complicated. One 2010
meta-analysis on the bystander effect in Psychological Bulletin,
for instance, found that while groups are a little slower to help
than individuals, this difference tends to disappear when it’s clear
there’s a real emergency, and also when someone must physically
intervene to help.
Overall, researchers have largely ignored when people do help
— perhaps because of the Genovese story, Levine says. “Because
of the power of [the Genovese] story, we rarely seek to look at
situations where the power of the collective can actually enhance
intervention,” Latane says.
If these myths teach us anything useful, it is that stories, no
matter how engaging, dramatic, seemingly revealing they may
be, are not evidence. Stories can spark curiosity, enliven class
presentations, suggest hypotheses, even inspire research. But they
deserve the same level of critical scrutiny that should go into all
thinking about psychology. n
Beryl Lieff Benderly is a writer in Washington, D.C.
Listen: The murder of Kitty Genovese shook
the nation, but at the time, few knew about the
person it perhaps devastated the most — her
girlfriend Mary Ann Zielonko. In this “Sound
Portrait,” interview, Zielonko shares her memories of that
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