Bystander Apathy

A few years before his obedience research, Stanley Milgram and his colleagues were contemplating a different sort of study. "The idea started in the summer of 1960," Milgram later recalled. "Some friends and I decided to improvise some street-theater scenes. We stopped at restaurants along the Massachusetts Turnpike and enacted common human situations: irate wife discovers her husband with another woman and rages at him in an incomprehensible mock-foreign language. What impressed me was that despite the extreme emotion in the encounter, onlookers conspicuously avoided involvement, even when the husband shook and slapped his 'wife' in retaliation." (Milgram, 1992, p.xxx).

Milgram never pursued the idea. He was just beginning to teach at Yale, working on the obedience experiments, and did not have the time to run another series of experiments simultaneously. Within a few years, reality caught up with his research idea. A horrible crime in New York City gained widespread publicity and caused social psychologists to conduct the sort of experiment Milgram contemplated.

What were the circumstances of the Genovese murder?

The issue of bystander apathy was raised by the murder on March 13, 1964, of a young woman named Catherine (Kitty) Genovese. The killer, a man named Winston Mosely, confessed later that he had been cruising the city at 3 a.m., planning "to rape and to rob and to kill a girl." He followed Miss Genovese as she parked her car and walked toward her apartment.

Mr. Mosely attacked Miss Genovese for the first time in front of the Austin Book Shop as she ran up the street, apparently toward a police call box. "Oh my God, he stabbed me," she screamed into the early-morning stillness. "Please help me!" Windows opened, and lights went on in the building across the street.

"Let that girl alone," yelled a man on the seventh floor. Mr Mosely walked toward his car. As he later told the police, "I had a feeling this man would close his window and go back to sleep and then I would return."

Miss Genovese staggered around the corner and fell inside the lobby of the first unlocked building she could find.

As witnesses watched from behind their curtains—one couple pulled up chairs to the window and turned out the light to see better—Mr. Mosely came back and calmly poked into doors until he found his victim. He stabbed her eight more times and sexually molested her.

It was 3:50 a.m. [30 minutes after the attack started] when the police received their first call—from a man who said he did not want to "get involved." ("The Night That 38 Stood By as a Life Was Lost," March 12, 1984)

Why did residents think it unfair that they were depicted as callous individuals?

Residents of the area were still sensitive about the Genovese incident when interviewed about it two decades later. They resented the implication that they were unusually callous individuals, or that they did anything wrong. They pointed out that they did, after all, call police. However, by the time a woman put on a coat over her nightgown and went down the street to check the doorway where Genovese lay dying, it was too late to save her life.

This incident had a major impact upon public consciousness. To many people, it seemed like a grim indictment of modern urban life. The Genovese incident led to an outpouring of research on bystander apathy. Over 1,000 articles and books were written about the attack on Genovese.

Bystander apathy occurs when witnesses fail to help somebody in distress. Psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley did an influential series of experiments to determine what factors might influence a person's willingness to help another person in distress.


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