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The case of Kitty Genovese and the Dissemination of Responsibility

The case of Kitty Genovese and the Dissemination of Responsibility

June 14, 2024

In the year 1964, in case of Kitty Genovese toured the New York newspapers and was featured on the Times. The girl, 29, returned from work at 3 in the morning and parked her car near the building where she lived. There, she was attacked by a mentally disturbed person who stabbed her in the back several times. The girl screamed and one of the neighbors heard the scream. The neighbor just tried to chase the killer behind his window. "Leave the girl alone!" But she did not come to her aid or called the police. The murderer left temporarily, while Kitty crawled, bleeding, towards her building.

The killer returned minutes later when the girl was already at the door of the building. He stabbed her repeatedly as she screamed. When he was dying, he raped her and stole $ 49 from her. The whole event lasted approximately 30 minutes. No neighbor intervened and only one called the police, to denounce that a woman had been beaten. According to him New York Times, Up to 40 neighbors heard the screams . According to official records, they were 12. In the case of Kitty Genovese it is irrelevant whether there were 40 people or 12. The relevant thing is: Why do not we help when we know that a person needs help?

Kitty Genovese and the diffusion of responsibility

The case of Kitty Genovese is extreme; however, we live surrounded by situations in which we ignore the help a person needs. We have become accustomed to walking among the destitute, ignoring requests for help, listening to cries that are not helped, avoiding screams that can make us suspect that there is domestic violence or children. We know that every day there are not only murders but also mistreatment. On many occasions, very close to us.

What is it that leads us to evade our responsibility? Do we really have that responsibility? What psychological mechanisms are involved in aid processes?


The death of Kitty Genovese helped social psychologists ask these questions and begin to investigate. From these studies arose the Theory of Dissemination of Responsibility (Darley and Latané, in 1968), which explained what really happens in these situations, from the stage in which we realize or not that there is a person who needs help, to the decisions we make to help or not .

The hypothesis of these authors was that the number of people involved influences decision-making to help . That is, the more people we believe may be witnessing this situation, the less responsible we feel to help. Maybe this is why we do not usually give help in the street, where there is a great transit of people, even though someone needs help, just as we ignore very extreme situations of poverty. This mode of apathy ends up becoming a kind of passive aggressiveness, because by not helping when necessary and responsible, we really collaborate in a certain way with that crime or social injustice. The researchers conducted a multitude of experiments and were able to demonstrate that their hypothesis was true. Now, are there more factors involved besides the number of people?

First, Are we aware that there is a situation of help? Our personal beliefs are the first factor to help or not. When we consider the person who needs help as the only responsible, we tend not to help. Here comes into play the factor of similarity: if this person is similar to us or not. This is the reason why certain social classes do not lend themselves to helping others, since they consider them far from their status (which is a mode of social prejudice, a small way of madness away from human empathy and sensitivity).

Helping or not helping depends on several factors

If we are able to detect a situation where a person needs help and we believe that we should help them, then mechanisms of costs and benefits come into play. Can I really help this person? What will I gain from it? What can I lose? Will I be damaged by trying to help? Again, this decision-making is influenced by our current culture, excessively pragmatic and increasingly individualistic and insensitive .

Finally, when we know that we can help and are willing to help, we ask ourselves: should I be? Is not there someone else? In this phase, the fear of the responses of others plays a special role. We think that maybe others judge us for wanting to help someone, or consider us similar to the person who needs help (the belief that "only one drunk would approach another drunkard").

The main reasons for shirking the responsibility of providing aid

Beyond the Theory of Dissemination of the Responsibility of Darley and Latané, today we know that our modern culture plays a key role in repressing our pro-social behavior, a way of being totally natural in human beings, since we are beings sensitive, social and empathic by nature (we are all born with these skills and develop them or not depending on our culture). These are the blockages to help:

1. Am I really responsible for what happens and should I help? (belief derived from modern classism, a social prejudice)

2. Am I qualified to do it? (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 mode of selfishness)

All these blockages can be left behind if we consider ourselves capable beings to help, responsible to do so as social and human beings, and above all, that our benefit is the fact of helping beyond what happens with the rest of people. Remember that leadership is the ability to positively influence others, so it is quite likely that the mere fact that one person helps another will inspire others to do so.


And you? Do you evade your responsibility, or face it? What would you do if you detect a dangerous situation for another person? How would you like to help others? Do you do it already? How?

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

Empirically-Informed Activism (June 2024).

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