On March 13, 1964, in the neighborhood of Kew Gardens, Queens, New York City, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was brutally attacked and murdered outside her apartment building. The attack began around 3:20 AM while she was returning home from work.
Reports suggest that over a period of about 30 minutes, Kitty Genovese’s cries for help were heard by multiple residents in the building, and lights in nearby apartments were turned on as a reaction to the commotion. However, despite the prolonged and visible attack, no one intervened or called the police promptly. This inaction was disturbing.
The New York Times published a story on March 27, 1964, describing the incident with the headline “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” This headline painted a vivid picture of the inaction of bystanders. The story shocked the nation and stirred public outrage about the callousness of those who witnessed the attack but failed to help.
The Kitty Genovese case prompted psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané to conduct research into why people often fail to help in emergencies, even when others are present. This research led to the formulation of the bystander effect theory, which suggests that the presence of others can lead to diffusion of responsibility and reduced likelihood of intervention.
In Africa, we call this same effect the community goat. Everybody assumes that everybody will feed it, but nobody ends up feeding it. People suffer when everybody is responsible and nobody can be held responsible.
What can we learn from this story and this research outcome?
Don’t be an inactive bystander. Anytime you see something wrong being done, don’t wait for someone among everyone. Make up your mind that every time something needs to be corrected, changed, or addressed, you will be responsible. Tell yourself, “If it is to be, it is up to me”. The day you begin to become an active force for good is the day you expect that anything that needs to be done, needs to be done by you. Quit pointing fingers, start taking action.