The case of Kitty Genovese and the spread of responsibility

In 1964, the business of Kitty genovese visited New York newspapers and was taken to New York City Times. The 29-year-old returned from work at 3 a.m. and parked her car near the building where she lived. There she was attacked by a mental disorder that stabbed her in the back several times. The girl screamed and one of the neighbors heard the scream. The neighbor just tried to scare the killer out of his window. “Leave the girl alone!” But he didn’t come to her aid or call the police. The killer is gone temporarily, as Kitty crawls, bleeding, towards her apartment building.

The killer returned a few minutes later when the girl was already at the door of the building. He stabbed her several times as she screamed. While he was dying, he raped her and stole $ 49 from her. The entire event lasted about 30 minutes. No neighbor intervened and only one called the police to report that a woman had been beaten. According to the New York Times, up to 40 neighbors heard the screams. According to official documents there were 12. In the case of Kitty Genovese, it is irrelevant whether it was 40 people or 12. What is relevant is: Why don’t we help when we know someone needs help?

Kitty Genovese and the spread of responsibility

The case of Kitty Genovese is extreme; however, we live in situations where we ignore the help a person needs. We are used to walking among the poor, ignoring requests for help, hearing cries that are not helped, escaping cries that can make us suspect that there is domestic or child violence. We know that not only murders but also ill-treatment take place every day. On many occasions, very close to us.

What leads us to escape our responsibility? Do we really have this responsibility? What psychological mechanisms are involved in the aid process?


Kitty Genovese’s death prompted social psychologists to ask these questions and start investigating. From these studies was born the Theory of diffusion of responsibility (Darley and Latané, 1968), who explained what really happens in these situations, from the phase when one realizes or not that there is a person who needs help, to the decisions that one takes to help him… or not.

The hypothesis of these authors was that the number of people involved influences the decision-making to help. In other words, the more we believe we witness this situation, the less we feel responsible for helping. Maybe that’s why we usually keep helping on the street, where there is a lot of traffic, no matter how badly a person needs help, and we ignore situations. very extreme poverty. This path of apathy ends up turning into a kind of passive aggression, because by not helping when needed and responsible, we have really collaborated in one way or another with this crime or social injustice. . The researchers carried out a multitude of experiments and were able to prove that their hypothesis was true. Now are there more factors involved besides the number of people?

First, Are we aware that there is an aid situation? Our personal beliefs are the first factor in whether or not to help. When we find that the person who needs help is solely responsible, we tend not to help them. Here comes the similarity factor: whether this person looks like us or not. This is why certain social classes do not lend themselves to helping others, because they regard them as far from their status (which is a way of social prejudice, a little way of madness far removed from empathy and sensitivity. human).

Whether or not help depends on several factors

If we are able to detect a situation where someone needs help and we think we need to help them, then there are cost and benefit mechanisms involved. Can I really help that person? What will I gain from it? What can I lose? Am I going to be hurt for trying to help? again this decision-making is influenced by our current culture, which is too pragmatic and increasingly individualistic and insensitive..

Finally, when we know we can help and are ready to help, we ask ourselves: should I be me? Isn’t there someone else? Fear of responses from others plays a special role in this phase. We think that maybe others will judge us for wanting to help someone, or see us as the person who needs help (the belief “one drunk would approach another drunk”).

The main reasons for shirking the responsibility of providing assistance

Beyond the theory of the diffusion of responsibility of Darley and Latane, we know today that our modern culture plays a key role in the repression of our prosocial behavior, a way of being completely natural in the human being. , because we are sensitive, social and empathetic beings by nature (we are all born with these skills and develop them or not depending on our culture). Here are the locks to help you:

1. Am I really responsible for what is going on and should I help? (Belief derived from modern classism, a social prejudice)

2. Am I able to do this? (Belief derived from our fear)

3. Will it be bad for me to help? (Belief derived from our fear and also from the influence of modern classism)

4. What will others say about me? (Fear, how our self-concept will be affected, a way of selfishness)

All these blockages can be ignored if we consider that we are beings capable of helping, responsible for doing so as social and human beings, and above all, that our benefit is helping others. beyond what is happening with others. Remember that leadership is the ability to positively influence others, so it is very likely that the mere fact that one person helps another will inspire others.


And you? Are you running away from responsibility or facing it? What would you do if you detected a dangerous situation for another person? Would you like to help others? Are you already doing it? How?

For a more human world, welcome to the world of pro-social responsibility.

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