Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Genovese story and the 38 bystanders

Last weekend, the New York Post ran an article about the debunking of a myth that grew in the wake of Kitty Genovese's brutal 1964 murder in Queen's, New York. According to the myth, launched by the New York Times, thirty-eight New Yorkers observed the murder-in-progress but did nothing to help the victim.

The myth is the focus of a new book-length analysis by Kevin Cook (the focus of the Post's article).

Evidence against the story of the 38 inactive bystanders was presented in the Times itself in 2004 in a piece by Jim Rasenberger. Cook and Ransberger both quote the lawyer Joseph De May, who was interviewed about the case by Brooke Gladstone in 2009.

The evidence against the myth was summarized in a 2007 article in the American Psychologist by three British researchers (Rachel Manning, Mark Levine, and Alan Collins [hereafter MLC]), who cite De May and Rasenberger. MLC examine role of the Genovese myth -- or 'parable', to use their term -- in a slew of psychology textbooks after its introduction into the lore of social psychology by Professors Bibb Latané and John M. Darley, who used the Genovese incident to illustrate the bystander effect. In their paper, MLC situate the Genovese parable in a long social-science tradition of vilifying crowds (esp. urban ones) as corrupting influences, irrational forces that whip people into a frenzy in which calamitous acts of violence are then committed. The novelty of the Genovese case, say MLC (p. 560), is its use in social psychology to present the urban mob not as leading individuals to commit evil but, instead, as promoting evil omissions. As MLC put it, 'the bystander tradition introduces the concept of the power of the collective to impose inaction on individuals' (p. 560). MLC also point out the oddity of taking the Genovese case to exemplify any sort of crowd phenomenon; after all, even if the parable were true, we would be faced with thirty-eight individuals in the privacy of their respective residences ignoring a nearby murder, and not with thirty-eight people being led specifically by crowd dynamics to ignore the crime (MLC, pp. 559-60).

Surprisingly, Latané seems still to believe the Genovese myth and has tried to cast doubt on MLC's work (not very convincingly).

While there continue to be cases of callous indifference to the suffering of crime victims, the evidence for a bystander effect is apparently mixed.

Here's a 1964 30-minute documentary about the Genovese case (presented by Harry Reasoner).

I've already linked to the De May interview from 2009, but it's worth linking to this specific observation of De May's, where he notes that the Genovese myth arose shortly after JFK's assassination, when some pundits had claimed that all Americans bore a collective guilt in connection with the President's murder.

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