Some readers may have seen the story about a woman who was raped on a SEPTA commuter train in Philadelphia while other people on the train either did nothing or even took videos of it. I found this hard to believe and felt that there must be more to the story and so suspended judgment. Now later accounts suggest that the initial account of callous bystanders is incorrect and that the story is more complicated.
Some of us may remember the awful story back in 1964 of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered on a street while people living in the buildings reportedly ignored her screams. That story turned out to be not true but created an enduring myth about callous bystanders.
The 1964 murder of Genovese in New York City rose to international notoriety after a New York Times report claimed that nearly 40 people witnessed her being attacked and didn’t try to help her. The incident prompted extensive study, and the so-called “bystander effect” – a notion that when everyone thinks that someone else will act, nobody does – became de rigueur in psychology coursework.
Many years later, it emerged that the Times’ description of bystanders was incorrect. Far fewer people had actually witnessed Genovese’s murder than was reported and some did contact authorities. One of Genovese’s neighbors went out to help her, cradling the dying 28-year-old while waiting for paramedics. Most glaringly, an ambulance came to the scene “precisely because neighbors had called for help”, the New Yorker said in explaining how the original narrative was debunked.
Indeed, present-day research on bystanders stands in opposition to initial police accounts about the Septa passengers. A study based on closed-circuit television footage of 200 violent crimes across three countries found that “in 90% of those cases, bystanders did intervene”, explained Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
“So the bystander effect, as we had known it or had taught it for decades, may not be applicable today,” Jeglic said. “There are various factors that go into people acting and reacting, but for the most part, if the crime is clear, and it’s a serious crime, in almost all cases people will intervene.”
When bystanders are worried about their own safety, or physically incapable of intervening, they might step in by going for help or calling the police. Some have hypothesized that bystanders’ filming might even be an attempt at intervention. “They may be trying to help in videotaping it because it may be helpful in the prosecution of the crime later on,” Jeglic said.
Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter journalism institute in St Petersburg, Florida, said the concept of “master narrative” – effectively, cultural motifs that really stick – helps explain why the initial story resonated, even if facts ultimately don’t add up.
“That’s what makes it a master narrative – other stories are rejected as false or misleading or misinformation if they don’t fit the particular narrative,” said Clark, who has written about and discussed the Genovese case. Genovese’s story appeared to prove a story about “the loss of community, urban isolation and alienation”, not to mention the decline of good samaritanism.
The Genovese story created an enduring myth about callous bystanders that continues to this day. For some reason, people seem only too willing to believe the worst about our fellow human beings, and the way the SEPTA story spread shows that the myth remains strong.
However it has made me skeptical about such stories and I usually wait for a while to see what new information emerges.