Originally posted on April 14, 2014.
A recent New Yorker review (here) questions the famous claim that “38 witnesses” failed to respond to the Kitty Genovese murder and raises questions about the relationship between the media and the social sciences. Psychologists have known that the New York Times’ original report of 38 witnesses is questionable. In a 2007 American Psychologist article, Rachel Manning, Mark Levine, and Alan Collins reported on “The Kitty Genovese murder and the . . . parable of the 38 witnesses.”
Social psychologist Bibb Latané has responded to the New Yorker article, noting that the precise number of witnesses concerns a small “t” truth, with the dynamics of bystander inhibition being the central point of his award-winning research with John Darley. The dynamic that drove the bystander nonresponse was not “moral decay” but a simple principle: the “probability of acting decreases with the addition of more people.”
Latané’s letter in the April 7th New Yorker is available here, along with his more extensive submitted explanation.