Would you call the police if you witnessed a murder?

In 1964, The New York Times published Martin Gansberg’s now famous article “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police” about the killing of Catherine Genovese. It claimed that thirty-eight people witnessed a murder (of a woman some of them knew) and did not intervene, giving lazy excuses for their lack of action afterward.

Later, the title was proven partially false in another New York Times article, but the story still led to the formulation of the bystander effect theory; a theory in psychology which, according to Psychology Today, posits that observers in emergency situations are less likely to intervene the more other observers there are around them, even observers who would be likely to intervene if they were alone. The phenomenon is prevalent and well-documented. It has even been discovered in the behavior of five-year-olds in a study published by the Association for Psychological Science. According to Psychology Today, Psychologists explain the bystander effect for many reasons, but namely that in emergency situations humans’ sense of personal responsibility is diffused when surrounded by other bystanders, and that humans model their behavior off of those around them, so if no one is intervening they are unlikely to.

The popular ABC primetime show What Would You Do? features many examples of the phenomenon, staging offensive acts in public and seeing how bystanders react. Often on the show, large groups of bystanders react late, or do not react at all.

Last week, Ms. Ostendorf’s English 9 Accelerated class read “38 Who Saw Murder…” and learned about the bystander effect. They watched the following video demonstrating and discussing the effect:

From “Coolpsychologist” on YouTube: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=OSsPfbup0ac

Below are excerpts from interviews of three students in Ms. Ostendorf’s class. They gave their opinions on “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…” and the bystander effect, commenting on where it manifests in their lives.

Jack Malek, 14

What was your initial reaction to reading “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…”?

I was really surprised to read that thirty-eight people saw a woman get killed that they knew and they did nothing about it, they did nothing to save her.

Do you think the bystander effect is a real phenomenon?

I do. This is happening right here and this story is a perfect example. Because people think when they see something, and there are a lot of people around that someone else is going to do something about it. So, this is a perfect example.

Did reading “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…” lead you to question yourself?

I questioned myself, “Have I ever been a part of the bystander effect? Have I ever done this? Have I ever been part of this phenomenon?”

Do you think you would have reacted in this situation surrounded by other bystanders? Would you now?

After reading this story, yes. But, I don’t know if I would have been part of the bystander effect before.

Otto Schmidt, 14

What was your initial reaction to reading “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…”?

I was somewhat shocked and surprised that the people didn’t help when needed, but after thinking about the story and realizing the circumstances of it being the nighttime and people not really wanting to help and thinking somebody else would, I wasn’t super surprised by the outcome.

Did reading “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…” lead you to question yourself?

It definitely made me think more about ignoring, not just when people are in need but ignoring a lot of things, or just doing things because everybody else is doing them even though maybe it’s not the right thing to do.

Before you learned about this, do you think you would have reacted the same way as the other 38 people if you were in that situation?


How would you react now?

At the very least, it would lead me to think about what happened here. And then, to act.

Henry Aerts, 14

What was your initial reaction to reading “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…”?

Honestly kind of shocked but in a way I was also kind of not surprised. Because, I’ve seen people doing that where someone is in need but no one helps, they just walk by because they think that someone else will help them or they just don’t want to get involved. So, I’ve seen that kind of thing before.

How do you see the bystander effect in your personal life?

For example, when the teacher asks a question in class, a lot of times no one says anything because they think that someone else is going to answer it, but then in the end it just goes awkward and silent because no one can answer it, thinking that someone else would.

Did reading “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…” lead you to question yourself?

Yeah, it kind of did. Because, I wasn’t sure if I would have done anything different. Maybe I would have called the police, I don’t know.

How would you react now?

If it happened tonight, I would definitely call.

Hopefully, with more knowledge about the bystander effect, people will begin to intervene more in emergency situations, even when surrounded by others.

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