Pavlov's Couch

A Psychology Student's Mental Experience

Still Nothing Has Changed

Portrait photo of Kitty GenoveseHave you heard of the Kitty Genovese incident? Most psychology students have at least, although the knowledge at large isn’t as widespread as I think it should be. Although the story has since been shown to have been exaggerated a little (see The Kitty Genovese Murder and the Social Psychology of Helping:
the parable of the 38 witnesses
), the commonly told version goes something like this: On March 13 1964 Kitty Genovese, full name Catherine Susan Genovese, was heading home from her job as a bar manager. At 3:15am outside her home in Queens she was attacked and stabbed twice in the back by a male assailant. The attack wasn’t lethal though, and Kitty was able to scream out “Oh my god, he’s stabbed me! Help!” A number of neighbours heard the scream and came to their windows to see what was happening, and when one shouted out “Leave that girl alone” the assailant ran off. But no one came to help Kitty. She staggered around to the back of her building, but ten minutes later her assailant returned after having donned a hat to cover his face, parked nearby, and finished the attack. He stabbed her several more times and raped her. Again neighbours heard the attack and her screams. After the final attack, thirty minutes after the first attack, a witness called the police, and at 4:15 an ambulance arrived to take Kitty to emergency care, but she would never make it there alive.

This harrowing account of the apparent apathy of New York city dwellers sparked a public shame, and led to a series of experiments into what has since been called the Bystander Effect and Diffusion of Responsibility by psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane.

1964. So long ago now. We’ve changed. We’re all more socially and environmentally responsible now. More aware. More mature. Right?

CCTV Still from NY of man lying on floor as someone walks pastThis article and video in the Sydney Morning Herald are a cold shower to those hollywood-raised optimists who think the good guys survive and people generally like to look after each other. After trying to help a woman who was being mugged, homeless Hugo Tale-Yax was stabbed and left bleeding on the pavement in New York. In the hour and forty minutes that he lay dying and dead Hugo was passed by a number of pedestrians, and even photographed by one, but again no one helped.

So the question is: What would you do?

Recently I witnessed a somewhat less extreme example of this myself. While walking with my partner we turned a corner to see a man lying on the floor and a small crowd around him. From the look of him two things were apparent; first that he was drunk and quite possibly an alcoholic or homeless (or both) if the state of his clothing and cleanliness were anything to go by. Secondly that he was starting to slip into shock – confused and frightened, pale, and starting to hyperventilate. But it was what we discovered next that has stuck most in my mind. We were by no means first on the scene, however as we stepped forward to help (as is our instinct) it became clear that not only had no one else tried to talk to the man directly and calm him down, but also no one had called emergency services. This despite some people having witnessed the actual assault, a punch to the back of the head.

A crowd of people around an injured man, and all they were doing is watching. Was this diffusion of responsibility in action, or have we become that desperate as a voyeuristic society?

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2 thoughts on “Still Nothing Has Changed

  1. Lola Snow on said:

    One afternoon, Stan and I and a gang of the guys from work, went out for a walk around a local well known attraction. It was at the height of tourist season, and thus rammed with people taking photos and gazing at the architecture. As we walked in, there was a big issue seller unconscious on the pavement, with a half empty two litre bottle of white lightening a few feet away lying on it’s side. He wasn’t having a sleep. The way his body was positioned, and the small grazes on his face looked as if he had actually fallen from a small wall where he’d be sitting. I was the last person out of our group to walk past him, and watched 7 people, all in the emergency services, step over him and raise their eyebrows. I got really upset and tried to wake him, whilst everyone stood around just looking at him. I got Stan to phone an ambulance, whilst a guard came over and put him in the recovery position. This bloke must have been lying there for ages, and no one did anything. He was absolutely out for the count and unresponsive, even when the paramedics were flicking his eyelashes, he didn’t move a muscle.

    It was as if because he was a Big Issue seller, no one cared.

    Lola x

  2. My friend from ninjutsu once came across a man who was being attacked by a group of men. He went round the corner and put the boxes he was carrying down (cursing himself for breaking one of the cardinal rules of self-preservation – keep your hands empty). He then went back round the corner and asked what was going on.

    Things escalated and having weighed up which of the attackers was the best choice, he squared up and prepared for things to get physical. The attacker was lucky, since his nose was saved a breaking by the intercession of the film crew…

    It took my friend a bit to readjust – apparently the whole thing was being acted out and filmed as part of a documentary on public reactions to such situations. They had acted out the same scenario several times that day – my friend was the only person to intervene…

    Having said that, a friend of my father’s attempted to intercede in a fight between a husband and his wife, carried out in full daylight – the man was physically punching and slapping his wife. My father’s friend again asked what was going on and attempt to calm the situation – it ended with both the husband and wife turning on him. Then he was the one getting punched and slapped…

    I have also been attacked in broad daylight. I called out to a guy on the other side of the road. He stood there and watched – I suspect that if it had been later than 2001 he’d have been recording it on his phone to upload on youtube. It’s a good thing I can look after myself…

    Would I intervene? Don’t know depends on the circumstances and whether my intervention is likely to help, or just increase the risk of harm. I’d say at the very least I’d phone the emergency services though…

    Take care,

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