Forensic Psych

Research Left Behind: A Critique of the Kitty Genovese Parable

This is an article critique I submitted in a class. I critiqued an article that can be read here:

Here is my paper, abstract and all. I am not including references. As always, please do not steal my work. This is my property. Thanks!


Manning, Levine and Collin (2007) that the Kitty Genovese story has been exaggerated and this exaggeration has had some negative effects on research in the field of psychology. The authors attempt to provide evidence that the Genovese case has hindered research in group altruism because of the intense interest and focus on the bystander effect and say that if the textbooks were revised that more interest would be expressed in group help in emergency situations. The evidence presented, while good, is not enough to develop their theory. While this story could certainly be considered a modern parable, it has not hindered research on group altruism and it is unlikely that revising the story in textbooks will have a significant impact on future research. More interest in altruism research may be created by keeping the story in its parable-like format instead of revising it.

Keywords: altruism, bystander effect, parable, help, Kitty Genovese



Manning, R., Levine, M., & Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping: The parable of the 38 witnesses. Advanced online publication. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.6.555

Research Left Behind: A Critique of the Kitty Genovese Parable

            The Kitty Genovese story is undoubtedly a well-known piece of history in the field of psychology. However, can one go to the extent of calling it a modern parable? That is basically what Manning, Levine, and Collins (2007) claim. They also claim that this story has more or less prevented much research from being done on group altruism because there has been a significant focus on the threat of inactive groups, also recognized as the bystander effect. There are some things to consider about this argument. First, the “parable of the 38 witnesses” is indeed somewhat of a modern parable, but it has not hindered research on group altruism. Secondly, it is unlikely that revising the story in textbooks will have a significant impact on future research in this area. In fact, not revising it will probably be even more beneficial.

The general idea is that a parable is “any form of imaginative literature…constructed in such a way that readers or listeners are encouraged to look for meanings hidden beneath the literal surface” (Parable, 2011, para. 1), and that is exactly what the Kitty Genovese case has done. Manning et al. (2007) made a good case for this, revealing how several textbooks describe the murder and subsequent research. They spend a significant chunk of their argument convincingly discussing the evidence from the Genovese case, even using court transcripts and expert opinions in order to prove that the manner in which the story has been told is not an accurate description of events. It has continued to be told with such exaggeration that it has developed a clear lesson. The authors suggest that, “the parable of the 38 witnesses who failed to help has its power. It provides a cautionary tale about dangers to neighborliness that result from the conditions of modern life” (p. 559).

Their parable argument is compelling, but it is difficult to agree with their assumption that “…the repeated telling of the parable of the 38 witnesses has served to curtail the imaginative space of helping research” (Manning, Levine, & Collins, 2007, p. 555). They went on later to explain:

…there is work in the traditional bystander literature which shows that groups can facilitate rather than inhibit helping—indeed, we cited examples in our article. However, we argue that these studies are a minority and are seen as interesting…They are cast as examples of the group failing to inhibit helping rather than in service of a theory about how groups can facilitate helping. (Manning, Levine, & Collins, 2008, p. 562) 

One thing to consider is how is “minority” defined? It is not specified in the original article (Manning et al., 2007) or the comment paper (Manning et al., 2008).  While not requesting a count or statistics, it would be helpful to have an idea of what they considered a “minority.” There is research on group interventions and altruism. One article provides steps to a successful intervention in the workplace and states that as the group moves through the steps and recognize and understand the problem, they can solve it together (Kulis, 2004, p. 43). Darley, Teger, and Lewis (1973) found that face to face interactions are important in group response to emergencies. That was indeed the same Darley of the bystander effect research (1968). Yet another study provides evidence for a previously posited idea that when there is a presence of a noticeable in-group, it “activates a ‘group heuristic’…to be adopted by people who face a group situation” (Yamagishi and Mifune, 2008, p. 7). These are just some of the research available on altruism in groups. Manning et al. (2007) does mention some of the research on group help, but they do not argue a convincing case for its “minority” status. The simple fact that they named a select few pieces of research does not mean the research is a “minority.” There is no way to declare it a minority without first defining the terminology, nor is there a way to prove that the Genovese parable is the cause of a supposed lack of research in that area.

As a modern parable, this case is well-known, but Manning et al. (2007) did no research to empirically test their claim that the parable is the probable cause of this supposed lack of research. Instead, they are making unscientific assumptions based on the idea that the scare of inactive groups behind the Genovese story has so enthralled researchers that there has hardly been any attention to the other side – altruism. This argument that research in the area has been hindered by the case is unfounded. There is certainly not a shortage of research in the area. To the contrary, “Scores of conditions under which groups both facilitate and inhibit interventions have now been empirically delineated” (Brock, 2008, p. 561).

Secondly, textbook revision of this story is not necessary to spur on future research in group altruism.  It is been suggested that, “…ingrained altruism has evolved as a consequence of our species’ dependence on group living for survival” (Jarrett, 2009, para. 1). There is evidence of this in research involving toddlers who helped adults for the sake of helping (Over & Carpenter, 2009; Warneken & Tomasello, 2006). Over and Carpenter say that based on the research, “…connections between affiliation to the group and prosocial behavior are thus so fundamental that…a mere hint of affiliation is sufficient to increase helping” (p. 1192). If altruism is ingrained in us, stories such as that of Genovese should create positive change or desire to change. Jim Rasenberger (2006) writes that it is, “not stone-cold indifference that prevents people from pitching in during emergencies…It’s states of mind more familiar to most of us: confusion, fear, misapprehension, uncertainty” (para. 11). He also goes on to report that “Real good came of the story too. The 911 emergency phone system was launched in its aftermath. The understanding of human psychology was expanded. Consciences were pricked” (para. 13). All in all, the fact that the number of witnesses was exaggerated may be a good thing. The bystander effect came about and told us of the threat of inactive groups, but in its original 38 witness, parable-like format it pricked peoples’ consciences; made them aware that such inaction exists and should be avoided. So, why should it be revised?

Manning et al. (2007) indicate at one point that they do not wish to primarily focus on “revisionist history” (p. 555), but in the conclusion of their paper they contradict themselves:

The fact that the story is a stubborn and intractable urban myth (Takooshian et al., 2005, p. 66) makes its continued presence at the heart of the social psychology of helping even more unfortunate. By debunking the myth and reconsidering the stories that psychologists present in textbooks, we might open up the imaginative space for social psychologists to develop new insights into the problem of promoting helping…” (p. 561).

It seems as though the authors are suggesting there should be some revisions in order to interest people in researching group help. In the beginning they stated that they did not call for revisions, but clearly they are suggesting it here. They are undoubtedly contradicting themselves.

Manning et al. (2007) seem to be arguing that if we correct the textbook information and stories, more researchers may want to attempt to study group altruism instead of the threat of inaction. This does not seem to be the case though. It is probably fair to say that the best kinds of results can sometimes come from the worst situations. When, for example, the world trade centers were attacked in 2001, more people stood together and plenty of people lost their lives trying to save others. Altruism is ingrained in us and we can see this in real life. Research is available on group help. Whether or not one can call it a minority is the trouble. Not everything is surrounded by the doom, gloom, and threat that bystander effect has reportedly caused; in fact, sometimes the worse situations bring out the best in people and we are reminded that altruism still exists.



Brock, T. C. (2008). Negligible Scholarly Impact of 38-Witnesses Parable [Peer commentary on the paper “The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping: The parable of the 38 witnesses” by R. Manning, M. Levine, & A. Collins]. Retrieved from

Jarrett, C. (2009). How to increase altruism in toddlers. Retrieved from

Kulis, J. V. (2004). The beauty of intervention: Kitty Genovese story is a call to action for SH&E professionals. Professional Safety, 49, 41-43.

Manning, R., Levine, M., & Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping: The parable of the 38 witnesses. Advanced online publication. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.6.555

Manning, R., Levine, M., & Collins, A. (2008). The legacy of the 38 witnesses and the importance of getting history right [Peer commentary on the paper “Negligible Scholarly Impact of 38-Witnesses Parable” by T. C. Brock]. Retrieved from

Over, H., & Carpenter, M. (2009). Eighteen-month-old infants show increased helping following priming with affiliation. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 20, 1189-1193.

Parable. (2011). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

Rasenberger, J. (2006, October). Nightmare on Austin Street. American Heritage, 57(5). Retrieved from

Takooshian, H., Bedrosian, D., Cecero, J. J., Chancer, L., Karmen, A., Rasenberger, J., et al. (2005). Remembering Catherine “Kitty” Genovese 40 year later: A public forum. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 5, 63–77.

Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science, 311, 1301-1303.

Whitbourne, S. K. (2010). Why and how do we help? Retrieved from

Yamagishi, T., & Mifune, N. (2008). Does shared group membership promote altruism? : Fear, greed, and reputation. Rationality and Society. Advanced online publication. doi: 10.1177/1043463107085442

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