1964: Kitty Genovese is stabbed at 3am; her stabber flees, and returns 30 minutes later and kills her. The money quote from the 1964 New York Times: “For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”
And that’s what you get for reading the New York Times.
This is the famous “Bystander Effect”, replicated by several other studies: people are more likely to offer help when no one else is around; or, more accurately, the more people that are around, the less likely anyone is to do anything.
It turns out that this story isn’t correct; there weren’t 38 people, watching, and no one actually saw all of the attacks from beginning to end, and no one was actually with anyone else witnessing the attacks. So the prototypical example turns out to be a terrible example.
But so what? The “bystander effect” has been replicated many times, so what if the example is wrong? The first question that has to be answered is: what are narratives like the “bystander effect” for?
The importance lies in a key difference in the way knowledge claims are made in psychology compared with other science disciplines. For example… while the other science disciplines present information as abstracted ‘facts’, psychology textbooks tend to use experiments to demonstrate generalizations… where textbooks in other science disciplines describe the facts that readers must digest, “psychology textbooks present experiments and other evidence as the content that the beginner must learn”…. In the absence of a written tradition that describes uncontested facts, illustrative stories (such as the 38 witnesses narrative) play a key part in linking the catalogues of experimental and empirical material with the world of the known. They populate the psychological imagination of those who seek to integrate the psychological research with the social world.
It is here that the parable of the 38 witnesses who failed to help has its power. It provides a ‘cautionary tale’ about dangers to neighborliness that result from the conditions of modern life. It defines the parameters of the problem that social psychology needs to address. Attention is focused on the psychological consequences of the presence of others.
It tells us how to understand everyday life, even if it’s wrong.
Manning makes with an important observation: the narrative of the 38 witnesses in their apartments overlooking the alley, no one coming to Kitty’s aid, is actually not an example of crowd psychology. This wasn’t 38 people in the alley doing nothing, they were all separately walled off by brick and window. There was no crowd.
So they may have speculated that others would get involved, but this is quite different than the crowd promoting some inaction.
But Manning argues that it was necessary to link these “38” individual behaviors to a crowd, because a crowd was already understood to be a dangerous thing:
Until the emergence of the bystander tradition, the most common way that the dangers of group presence could be imagined was in terms of its capacity for violence… However, with the story of thee 38 witnesses comes the opposite possibility. The threat to social stability and social values still comes through the anonymity of the collective, but now the danger lies in passivity and inaction.
By linking it to the crowd, the explanation becomes self evident: since the 38 people consist of a crowd, and we know crowds are bad, we now understand why no one helped Kitty.
So what has the “bystander effect” done for social psychology? Manning main point is that by getting it wrong, it has inhibited creatively thinking and researching the pro-social and “helping” aspects of crowds.
But she almost incidentally mentions another consequence:
“By seeking to locate the explanation in crowd terms, they are attempting to move away from explanations based on individual pathology. In fact, the motivation of researchers…seems to be to redeem those accused of immoral or unfeeling behavior.”