When Is Silence Golden?
More than 40 years ago, Kitty Genovese was fatally stabbed as she arrived home from work at 3 am. Although there is now some debate about exactly how many of Ms. Genovese’s apartment neighbors heard her cries for help, it seems clear that some did hear her.
From their Kew Gardens apartments in Queens, New York, neighbors reportedly heard her scream and some even looked out and saw Ms. Genovese struggle with her assailant. Someone who heard her cries called out and the assailant fled, allowing Ms. Genovese to get closer to her building. A few minutes later the attacker returned and murdered Catherine “Kitty” Genovese.
I first learned about Ms. Genovese’s murder in an Introductory Sociology class and I know that it is still included in many textbooks. Perhaps you have read about this tragedy too. The reason that sociologists and social psychologists have referenced this story is that it highlights some important theoretical ideas about the way we behave: Initial reports said there were 38 witnesses who would have heard or seen some aspect of this crime being committed—a number now highly disputed—but still, the fact that not one single person came to the aid of this woman is baffling.
In May, a 13-year-old Walker Middle School student in Tampa alleged that he was sexually battered by two flag-football teammates while two others held him down in the school locker room. Three of the boys accused are 14 and one is 15. Apparently the victim said nothing while the attack occurred and nothing afterward.
He claims that the same boys had been bullying him for almost two months, during which time he said nothing to his mother, teachers, nor any other adult. Reportedly there were nine witnesses who saw and/heard various aspects of this assault. Yet none of them said anything to authorities until they were called in for questioning.
All of this silence has been confounding for school authorities. For example, School Board member Jack Lamb said, “I'm very surprised that this was taking place and nothing was said. It's kind of amazing." Another board member, April Griffin initially responded to the silence of the witnesses by suggesting that they should be punished: "If they watched these situations take place….I would like some repercussions for those students.” (Griffin later acknowledged that punishing youth who witness bullying will not serve to make them more likely to report such behaviors.)
A variety of explanations have surfaced to explain the silence of the witnesses. Perhaps the witnesses thought it was a joke and didn’t realize it was as serious as it was, or maybe they assumed that the victim would report behavior this brutal. Even if these young witnesses recognized it as an attack and not a joke, perhaps they thought that “somebody” else would report the assault.
Social psychologists developed the idea of bystander effect which might help us understand the behavior of witnesses in both cases. Simply put, the theory predicts that large groups of people are less likely to respond to an emergency than smaller groups are because in a large group there is diffusion of responsibility: We each presume that someone else will respond, or that someone else will handle the situation better. Sometimes people are even reluctant to help while others are looking on. Although continued experiments to test this theory have met with varied results, the notion is a compelling one and can be used to understand the lack of bystander response in these stories.
What about the idea that reporting criminal or other behavior is snitching? And that snitching is bad? Within the hip-hop community and accompanied by t-shirts, DVDs (one notably featuring NBA player Carmelo Anthony) and other such accoutrements, the “Stop Snitching” campaign tells people not to cooperate with law enforcement authorities. Busta Rhymes and Cam’ron are just two of the more famous hip-hop artistes to employ this philosophy. Despite some publicity about the “Stop Snitching” campaigns from mainstream press such as Anderson Cooper for “60 Minutes”, a code of silence prevails in many other arenas. Can you think of some of those? Is it likely that middle school students in Tampa have adopted the “Stop Snitching” philosophy?
Or consider the case of Lisa Torti, who pulled her co-worker Alexandra Van Horn out of a car after seeing Van Horn’s car hit a pole. Van Horn became a paraplegic and has sued Torti alleging that her condition is due to Torti’s actions. Do you think people resist getting involved to avoid trouble for themselves?
Have you witnessed behaviors that should be reported? Did you? What influenced your decision either way? What are your theories about how cases like these two occur? And what do we know from the social sciences that could help school boards, for example, to find ways of changing such behaviors? What have you learned from sociology that would help you to provoke a response from bystanders if you were in harm’s way?