Monthly Archives: December 2015

Kitty Genovese, the Bystander effect and Volunteer’s dilemma

I just happened to read a lot about Kitty Genovese recently. I read about her in 59 seconds, The tipping point  and also a recent game theory book that i can’t recall the title. Because i have read about the Kitty Genovese so many times, i decide blog about the case.

For anyone who doesn’t know about the case of Kitty Genovese yet: Kitty Genovese, real name is Catherine Susan Genovese, was a New Yorker who was stabbed to death right outside her apartment. She yielded for help but no one came for recuse. The police and reporter later discovered that there were 37-38 witnesses that heard her scream or saw the murder but did not call the police. If only one of the witness called the police, she would have made it. Kitty Genovese’s case later become a well-known example for the bystander effect. If you google her name, you will find a lot of articles and books about the case.

Usually the bystander effect will be the used as the explanation. The bystander effect says that the probability of an individual to offer help to a victim is inversely related to the number of bystanders. This means that the more people around, the less likely you will get help! There are real experiments on the bystander effect. And Kitty Genovese is not the only case. There are also other cases like Axel Casian, Raymond Zack or Wang Yue. In an experiment by Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin about a staged woman in distress, when there is only one person around the chance of offering help is 70%, but if there are other people in the room the chance drops to 40%. Another research by Latane and Darley also shows the same pattern. In case of Kitty Genovese, the problem was too many witnesses around and therefore the chance that someone picked up the phone to call the police is quite small.

The case of Kitty Genovese is also studied in Game Theory, and labeled with Volunteer’s dilemma. Volunteer’s dilemma is a situation when a player needs to make a small sacrifice for the group’s benefit, but if no one takes the sacrifice then all the benefit is lost. One very common example is free rider problem, imagine if you are asked to contribute to a fund to fix something and you can choose to contribute nothing and benefit from other people’s contribution, but if everyone does the same then there will be no contribution at all. Thirty seven witnesses of Kitty Genovese were involved in a Volunteer’s dilemma, and everyone just decided to play the not-to-call strategy, hoping that someone would call but no one did. There is also mathematical proof that the more people around, the less likely someone will report the crime.

Now you know the bystander effect and volunteer’s dilemma, how can you get away from it? To me the answer is simple: just help or volunteer if you can. If you won’t, all the benefits may get lost. The small sacrifice can possibly result whole group benefits. In case you are the victim of bystander, i’m not an expert but there are many suggestions that you can explicitly call out the help, prepare an emergency number of just dial 911.

That’s all for now. I hope you enjoy the post! 😀