Kitty and the Bystander Effect


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Most people only know her by the phenomenon that sprouted from her murder. They know her as simply, “Kitty Genovese, the girl who got stabbed and no one did anything to help her.” Her case launched the famous psychology study known today as “The Bystander Effect.” But what really happened to Kitty all those years ago?

Well, let’s find out.

So, What is the Bystander Effect?

The Bystander Effect, or diffusion of responsibility, is a psychological theory that the more people present at the scene of a crime, the less likely one is to help. Bibb Latané and John Darley founded the idea in 1970, following the murder of Genovese in 1964.

In fact, the story was so intriguing that the New York Times picked it up. The article, titled “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police; Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector” went viral around the world. However, the Times itself rebuked the original reporting, stating that many of the claims were false and sensational.

According to the Economic and Social Research Council, Latané and Darley conducted a series of tests to study their theory. The study revealed that the participants took action depending on the amount of other people nearby. There are two reasons to explain this: the diffusion of responsibility and herd mentality.

Everyone present has an equal responsibility to take action. Therefore, each individual expects the other to take the initiative. This leads to a standstill. Additionally, everyone wants to follow the “norm,” or simply go with the crowd. So, if one person chooses to remain still, the others will follow and cause a chain reaction where the entire group follows the silent rule to be uninvolved.

Here is where Kitty’s murder comes into play.

The Real Story

On March 13, 1964, at approximately 2:30 a.m., Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese, 28, was walking home from the night shift. She lived in Kew Gardens, a suburb of Queens, New York, with her girlfriend Mary Ann Zielonko. They rented a second-floor apartment, and the area was said to be safe and peaceful.

As she made it to her apartment building that night, a man walked up with a knife and stabbed her. When she screamed, a neighbor named Robert Mozer yelled for the man to get away from her. The man ran off, and Kitty crawled to the back of the apartment building. However, the man came back 10 minutes later to finish the job. In the back of the building, no one would be able to see what happened.

As Kitty lay bleeding on the ground, the man stabbed her again, raped her and took her money.

Another neighbor, Sophia Farrar, found her close to death. She screamed for someone to call the police as she held Kitty’s body. The police arrived soon after, but Kitty died on the way to the hospital.


Investigators didn’t tell Zielonko that her girlfriend died until nearly 4 a.m. After that, no one questioned her until 7 a.m., when Detective Mitchell Sang arrived. According to HISTORY, another neighbor, Karl Ross, stayed with Zielonko to console her. However, Sang arrested him for disorderly conduct after deciding he was intruding on the interrogation.

Interestingly, Farrar found Kitty at the bottom of the stairs leading to Ross’ apartment.

Later, Detectives John Carroll and Jerry Buns probed Zielonko about her relationship with Kitty, going as far as asking about their sex life. The entire affair took six hours, and Zielonko was still considered a suspect.

A break came when officers received a call about a robbery. The suspect, Winston Moseley, drove a white Corvair, with a stolen TV in the back. IN=vvestigators remembered that witnesses described seeing a white car at the scene of the crime. Additionally, they noticed that Moseley’s hands were covered in scratches, consistent with defensive wounds.

They accused Moseley of killing Kitty, and he admitted that he was in fact the man responsible. Investigators were confident that they found their guy, because Moseley confirmed details only the murderer would have known. He also admitted to committing other rapes and murders. He was sentenced to death June 15, 1964, but it was reduced to life in prison in 1967. Moseley died in jail at the age of 81 in 2016.

Why Is This Case So Profound?

In combination with the sensational New York Times article, this case is so famous because of the research on the bystander effect that stemmed from it. Although there weren’t 37 witnesses to Kitty’s death, there were more than one who stood by as a young women was brutally murdered.

In fact, Karl Ross himself admitted that he didn’t initially help. He heard Moseley attack Kitty, and even opened his door to investigate the strange noises. It wasn’t until Farrar screamed for the police that he stepped in.

And what did he say was the reason?

“I didn’t want to get involved.”

What do you think?

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