History of collective behavior

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Sociology 313

Course Reader Part 1


Collective Behavior (CB) is a way to explain social responses to change…

Events leading to the development of collective behavior research:

  • RENAISSANCE (14th-17th C)  Awakening from Middle Ages

  • REVOLUTIONS  (16th-19thPolitical, Religious, Economic, Philosophical

    • Industrial Revolution: England 1750/USA 1850

    • American Revolution: 1775-1783

    • French Revolution: 1789

    • Enlightenment/Age of Reason:  Philosophical Revolution (18th C)

Urban migration, democratic ideals, and capitalism were powerful change agents in people’s lives, especially during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Definition: Collective behavior is an attempt of people to change their environment through relatively spontaneous, unstructured, extrainstitutional behavior of generally short duration when under conditions of anxiety, stress, uncertainty, threat, or strain

In CB events, social norms are absent, weak, or irrelevant!

Norms: "Rules to Live By"

Morés-- What is a Moré?  (powerful norm; taboo)

(when the moon hits the sky like a big pizza pie, that’s amoré)

Folkways:  informal norms (etiquette)

CB is not individual behavior, but may not be in a true "group" either

  1. Groups have social boundaries

  2. Group members identify with one another

  3. Group members interact with each other

All three conditions may not always be met in the case of collective behavior. This is why our study is called COLLECTIVE behavior. It occurs in a collectivity. There are two general types:

Aggregate: People gathered in the same place at the same time (bus stop)

Category:  People who share some identity but who may never meet

(all American Studies Majors; all 22-year olds, et al.,)

All collective behavior occurs in one or both of the following settings:

--Compact Collectivity (crowd, riot, stampede, protest, panic, mob) face-to-face setting; close physical proximity; large number of people

--Diffuse Collectivity (fad, fashion, propaganda, craze, rumor, gossip, urban legend) spatially dispersed social setting such as the mass or public.

Mass: a number of anonymous, isolated, heterogeneous individuals with little contact with one another.  They react to a given stimulus in a parallel rather than collective way; e.g., mass delusion.

Public: scattered individuals who are focused on a given stimulus but who have some contact with one another.  Both mass and public are seen as immense potential audiences that stand ready to react to messages, events, or stimuli (enter mass media)

Why Study Collective Behavior?

  • Save lives

  • Plan for future events (architecture, social control)

  • Be informed: Make good decisions when faced with ambiguity

  • Be a critical consumer of normative and non-normative information


Important to note that the disaster isn't the collective behavior.  We investigate collective responses to the disaster.  In most cases of natural disaster, norms continue to guide behavior--as in sharing information, helping, rebuilding, etc.

But in cases where institutional response is not adequate, information may not be available, recovery is not organized, supplies are inadequate--as in the case of Katrina--the probability of collective behavior increases dramatically.

Interesting facts about disasters:

--"Disaster" means "bad star" in Latin

--May fall into either compact collectivity, diffuse collectivity, or both

--Disaster response is a good example of  emergent quality of collective behavior where spontaneous, innovative, non-normative behavior may save lives

--Most people follow the norms during disaster recovery.  It is a myth that disaster victims engage in selfish, individualistic, panic, fleeing from the scene of  the disaster.

--People tend not to evacuate their homes when told to do so.  They will wait until the last minute

--People see public shelters as a last resort and will go to family, friends, and neighbors before evacuating to a shelter

--Public officials often must deal with an influx of people during an evacuation.  These include the curious, the entrepreneurs, and those trying to bring aid

--Looting is actually rare in the case of a natural disaster (the case of New Orleans is a good illustration of  collective response to the lack of  institutional response--looting stores for bottled water and food are examples)

In what ways has the Japanese response to their disaster been unique?

More about disasters...

Defined in terms of:

  1. Loss of Life

  2. Loss of Property

  3. Damage to the Environment

The J-Curve of Disasters (it's actually more like an "L-Curve") graphically reflects the fact that many cases of single loss of life occur, while great loss of  life in a single incident is less common:


of                                    L


                                Number of Deaths

There are two general categories of disaster:

  • Natural (floods, hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcano, etc)

  • Human Caused (radiation, technological failure, explosions, etc)

Response to Disaster

There are many different levels of response:

  • --societal

  • --organizational: many variations as described by Russell Dynes:

  1. Established Organizations (Fire department)

  2. Expanding Organizations (Red Cross)

  3. Extending Organizations (School gym, construction crew)

  4. Emergent Organizations (neighbors or students coming together to help)

  • --individual

Read what Professor Russell Dynes has to say about disaster in the 21st Century

Some of the world's worst disasters:

  • Hurricane: November 13, 1970
    Death Toll: 500,000-1 million died

  • Earthquake: January 23, 1556
    Shaanxi Province, China
    Magnitude: approximately 8
    Death Toll:  830,000

  • Flood: 1931
    Huang He (Yellow) River, China
    Death Toll: 1,000,000 to 3,700,000

  • Flu Pandemic: 1918 - 1919
    Death Toll: 50-100 million in 6 months


Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii: Among the Americans there were 2,409 casualties, including 1,177 crewmen killed when U.S. battleship Arizona was sunk during a surprise attack on the American naval base by Japanese warplanes. The devastating air strike, which damaged or destroyed every battleship in the U.S. Pacific Fleet, is the worst naval catastrophe in U.S. history.


Aug. 6, Aug. 9, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan: Altogether, the two bombings killed an estimated 110,000 Japanese citizens and injured another 130,000. By 1950, another230,000 Japanese had died from injuries or radiation.


Jan. 30, Baltic Sea: Nazi passenger ship Wilhelm Gustloff, carrying German refugees and soldiers, was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. As many as 9,000 to 10,000 may have died. World's largest marine disaster.


Dec. 3, Bhopal, India: Toxic gas, methyl isocyanate, seeped from Union Carbide insecticide plant, killed more than 8,000, injured about 150,000.


April 26, Chernobyl.  A core meltdown occurred at Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, creating a chemical explosion and a fireball which blew off the reactor’s 1,000-ton steel and concrete lid. Some 190 tons of highly radioactive uranium and graphite were expelled, spewing radioactive substances to a height of more than 1kilometer into the earth’s atmosphere.  It is estimated that the explosion released more than 200 times the radioactive fallout of the two nuclear weapons used at the end of World War II, spreading a radioactive cloud over large parts of the former Soviet Union, including Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, across Europe, and reaching as far as Greenland and parts of Asia. The radioactive plume initially traveled in a northwest direction toward Sweden, Finland and Eastern Europe, exposing the unsuspecting public to levels up to 100 times the normal background radiation.  Millions throughout the world were and continue to be affected (including a generation of children with birth defects and various types of cancer, especially thyroid).


Sept. 11, New York City, Arlington, Va., and Shanksville, Pa. Hijackers crashed 2 commercial jets into twin towers of World Trade Center; 2 more hijacked jets were crashed into the Pentagon and a field in rural Pa. Total dead numbered 2,992, including the 19 hijackers. Islamic al-Qaeda terrorist group blamed.

Ten Stereotypes About Collective Behavior

1) Heightened Suggestibility: We are all influenced by others in both normative and collective behavior settings; suggestibility is an inherent characteristic of all social life.  It is possible that people in certain CB environments may be more suggestible when under conditions of strain or anxiety (stereotype partially supported).

2) Destructiveness: Actually, very few crowds are destructive (riots would be the one example of CB that has the stated goal of destruction/violence).  Collective behavior is probably no more destructive than conventional behavior (stereotype rarely supported).

3) Irrationality: Collective behavior is probably no more irrational than normative behavior.  We find instances of irrational and rational behavior in both institutional and collective behavior (stereotype not supported).

4) Emotionality: There is a qualitative difference between institutional and collective behavior in terms of emotionality.  Some CB settings are indeed highly charged, but we must exercise caution in drawing conclusions as there are aspects of normative behavior that exhibit high levels of emotionality as well (stereotype partially supported).

5) Mental Disturbance: CB participants are clearly no different from non-participants in terms of mental health.  LeBon is really the only theorist who thought crowd participants were deranged and contemporary research fails to support his early hypotheses (stereotype not supported).

6) Lower-Class Participation: CB draws participants from all walks of life; race, sex, age, social class, religion, political affiliation, and other demographic variables are represented among participants in collective behavior events.  While we do see a higher proportion of the unemployed participating in riots, it would be erroneous to characterize all CB participants as coming from the lower class.  This finding has more to do with availability (stereotype not supported).

7) Spontaneity: This stereotype is correct.  CB is by definition relatively spontaneous.  Of course, we will examine some events that are carefully planned and executed (social movements), but spontaneity is generally considered to be an important characteristic of collective behavior (stereotype is supported).

8) Creativity: There is support for this stereotype.  People engage in CB when they are faced with an ambiguous situation.  Innovation and creativity are key elements of collective behavior (stereotype is supported).

9) Lack of Self-Control: There is no support for the idea that CB participants are "out of control" (stereotype not supported).

10) Antisocial Behavior: While some examples of CB fly in the face of tradition, CB always occurs in a social context.  CB participants are not insensitive to group norms and beliefs—in fact, some theoretical perspectives argue that in the absence of strong social norms, CB participants strive to create new norms to guide behavior in ambiguous situations (stereotype not supported).

Rank the 10 stereotypes in terms of what YOU think is most descriptive from 1-10 with 1 being the most “true” of collective behavior events. (do not turn this in)

Theories of Collective Behavior

The first body of “scientific” thinking in collective behavior focused on the behavior of crowds.  Gustave LeBon was a leader in this development, and is often referred to as theFather of Collective Behavior.

Gustave LeBon (1841-1931) developed the first organized approach to the study of collective behavior.  His interest in crowds produced the:

Law of Mental Unity.  LeBon argued that members of a crowd lose their ability to think rationally.  He said the crowd becomes a homogeneous entity, with a "group mind."  Further, emotion spreads through the crowd via "contagion."

Contagion theory is also called transformation hypothesis.  Based on the early work of Gustave LeBon, it seeks to explain why people do things in a group that they might not do alone (like Ginna streaking in college). Contagion is based on mechanisms such as imitation, suggestion, and a sense of anonymity. It is as if everyone in the crowd is infected with collective excitement. So, the basis of this approach is that under certain conditions, the presence of others generates a collective excitement that spreads through the crowd and motivates individuals to act en masse. The assumption here is that collective behavior is usually emotional, irrational, and dangerous. Please note that more recent research and theoretical development cast doubt on LeBon's early ideas.  For example, crowds rarely are unified. It is more common to find smaller dyad and triad friendship or family groups within the crowd setting. Also note that people join a crowd for a variety of different reasons (not unified).

Dr. B streaking at UC Davis in 1971

Later, Herbert Blumer expanded on the idea of contagion with:

Circular Reaction. A state of individual restlessness is communicated to others and has a spiraling effect; spreading emotion to higher levels as it moves through the crowd.  Blumer says this happens through:

    • Milling

    • Collective excitement

    • Social contagion

Other General Theories of Collective Behavior Include:

1. Convergence (Predisposition Hypothesis): This theory is also based on LeBon’s work and argues that people are drawn to a crowd by their commonalties or predispositions. Once in the crowd, they can act out tendencies they had (hidden) in the first place. So, according to McPhail (1991), Turner & Killian (1987), and others, predisposition theory explains how the crowd provides an environment to act out or release already existing predispositions. This approach differs from contagion in that it assumes that individuals already have a tendency to engage in certain kinds of collective behavior before they join the collectivity.

2. Emergent Norm Theory (Turner & Killian 1957).  The earlier "theories" of contagion and convergence were based on the idea that collective behavior is irrational, emotional, and potentially destructive; where individuals lose their ability to think rationally and norms are violated, Turner & Killian beg to disagree. 

Turner & Killian argue that collective behavior is no more irrational, destructive, or emotional than conventional behavior; that crowds are heterogeneous and diverse (not homogeneous and uniform), and that participants in collective behavior do not violate norms as much as they innovate when a unique situation arises. Finally, emergent norm theory argues that when faced with an ambiguous situation, the collectivity develops new norms on the spot. In other words, this approach argues that collective behavior is not so much a violation of norms as it is the collective reconstruction of normalcy in a group setting. The result is a redefinition of what is considered proper in a normatively ambiguous situation.

3. Value-Added Theory (Neil Smelser 1962). This approach argues not only that collective behavior episodes aren't that spontaneous, but Smelser actually isolates six preconditions that he says must be in place for collective behavior to occur. The presence of each condition increases the likelihood that a collective episode will occur:

Structural Conduciveness: The environment must allow collective behavior events to occur. For example, in the US we have the right to assemble and the right to free speech. These rights make it legal and possible for people to gather and say what's on their minds. We also are a capitalist society with disposable income. This is conducive to events like fads and fashions.

Structural Strain: Smelser argues that collective behavior is problem-solving behavior. It is a response to stress, anxiety, deprivation, threat, or uncertainty of some kind. We see this condition in events like the 1992 Rodney King riot, Watts riot, Detroit riot (actually most race riots). The War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 took place at a time when a large number of the population was anxious about the idea of an invasion so were more open to the possibility of Martians invading New Jersey (go figure).

Generalized Beliefs: While structural conduciveness and strain may exist, collective behavior doesn’t typically occur unless a belief points to a specific problem and to a particular solution. The belief may not be accurate, for example the belief that the legal system in California was racist—leading to the Rodney King riots of 1992 in Los Angeles Clearly, generalized belief provides a justification or way to rationalize behavior.

Precipitating Factor:  Most collective behavior events are set off by a triggering event.  This was very evident with the jury’s verdict in the Rodney King case, also the riots after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.  This would be the proverbial “der Tropfen der das Fass zum Uberlaufen bringt” or the "straw that broke the camel's back."

Mobilization for Action: Even with 1-4 in place, collective behavior is usually inspired by charismatic leaders (or the media) who mobilize people to act.

Operation of Social Control: When social control breaks down, the way is clear for collective behavior to occur. Again, the Rodney King riot is a perfect example. Law enforcement and rescue personnel were conspicuously absent during the early stages of the riot. The Katrina response in New Orleans is another good example of a lack of social control.

Game Theory (Rational Calculus): Developed by Berk (1974) and others, this is a variation of exchange theory. The argument is that individuals try to minimize costs and maximize benefits. This rational decision-making approach is evident in:

Minimax Strategy. People are seen as rational actors (even in the crowd setting) who want to maximize their benefits. But, remember these are group decisions rather than individual decisions. Here, we run into the problems of Group Think and Risky-Shift. These interesting phenomena describe the powerful control function of a group setting and the tendency to make a riskier decision in a group than one would individually. 

Group Think (William Whyte 1952) is described as a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action (Irving Janis). This is usually a riskier path in a group than he or she would alone (risky shift). This phenomenon is in part responsible for the ill-advised decision of President Kennedy to invade Cuba...the decision to execute this disastrous military campaign was made with almost unanimous agreement by President John F. Kennedy and his advisors. These advisors were, almost without exception, very similar in background to the President and lacked military command experience...

These two ideas help us to understand other behaviors in compact collectivities, including bystander apathy. We know that the probability of responding to an emergency is reduced as the size of the collectivity increases. There is a diffusion of responsibility and a fear of embarrassment in possibly doing the wrong thing.

The bystander effect (also known as bystander apathy) is a psychological phenomenon where persons are less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when others are present than when they are alone. The antonym of the term is civil courage.

The Kitty Genovese case is a tragic example of the diffusion of responsibility resulting in bystander apathy in a collectivity. Another example of the Bystander Effect was the death of Deletha Word in Detroit in 1995. As dozens of onlookers gathered, and some cheered, three men pulled a woman from her car, ripped off her clothes, then chased her until she either jumped or was forced off a bridge to her death. None of the 40 or so passersby tried to help Deletha Word during the confrontation that began with two minor traffic accidents early Saturday on Belle Isle.

The Bystander Effect may also have played a role in the murder of James Bulger by two young boys.


Along a serene, tree-lined street in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York City, Catherine Genovese began the last walk of her life in the early morning hours of March 13, 1964. She had just left work, and it was 3:15 a.m. when she parked her red Fiat in the Long Island Railroad parking lot 20 feet from her apartment door at 82-70 Austin Street. As she locked her car door, she took notice of a figure in the darkness walking quickly toward her. She became immediately concerned as soon as the stranger began to follow her. “As she got out of the car she saw me and ran,” the man told the court later, “I ran after her and I had a knife in my hand.” She must have thought that since the entrance to her building was so close, she would reach safety within seconds. But the man was faster than she thought. At the corner of Austin Street and Lefferts Boulevard, there was a police call box, which linked directly to the 112th Precinct. She may have changed direction to call for assistance, but it was too late. The man caught up with Catherine, who was all of  5’1” and weighed just 105 pounds, near a street light at the end of the parking lot.

Long Island Railroad parking lot on Austin Street.

“I could run much faster than she could, and I jumped on her back and stabbed her several times,” the man later told cops.

“Oh my God! He stabbed me!” she screamed. “Please help me! Please help me!” Some apartment lights went on in nearby buildings. Irene Frost at 82-68 Austin Street heard Catherine’s screams plainly. “There was another shriek,” she later testified in court, “and she was lying down crying out.”  Up on the seventh floor of the same building, Robert Mozer slid open his window and observed the struggle below.

Hey, let that girl alone!” he yelled down into the street. The attacker heard Mozer and immediately walked away. There was quiet once again in the dark. The only sound was the sobbing of the victim, struggling to her feet. The lights in the apartment went out again. Catherine, bleeding badly from several stab wounds, managed to reach the side of her building and held onto the concrete wall. She staggered over to a locked door and tried to stay conscious. Within five minutes, the assailant returned. He stabbed her again.

Alley behind Austin Street apartment building where victim was murdered.

“I’m dying! I’m dying!” she cried to no one. But several people in her building heard her screams. Lights went on once again and some windows opened. Tenants tried to see what was happening from the safety of their apartments. The attacker then ran to a white Chevy Corvair at the edge of the railroad parking lot and seemed to drive away. On the sixth floor of 82-40 Austin Street, Marjorie and Samuel Koshkin witnessed the attack from their window. “I saw a man hurry to a car under my window,” he said later. “He left and came back five minutes later and was looking around the area.” Mr. Koshkin wanted to call the police, but Mrs. Koshkin thought otherwise. “I didn’t let him,” she later said to the press. “I told him there must have been 30 calls already.”  Miss Andre Picq, a French girl, who lived on the second floor, heard the commotion from her window. “I heard a scream for help, three times,“  she later told the court, “I saw a girl lying down on the pavement with a man bending down over her, beating her.”

At about 3:25 a.m., Catherine, bleeding badly, stumbled to the rear of  her apartment building and attempted to enter through a back entrance. The door was locked. She slid along the wall until she reached a hallway leading to the 2nd floor of 82-62 Austin Street but she fell to the vestibule floor. In the meantime, the man had returned again. “I came back because I knew I’d not finished what I set out to do,” he told cops later. He walked along the row of doors and calmly searched for the woman. He checked the first door and didn’t find her. He followed the trail of blood to the doorway where Catherine lay bleeding on the tiled floor. And there, while the defenseless victim lay semiconscious, incoherent from pain and loss of blood, he cut off her bra and underwear and sexually assaulted her. He then took $49 in cash from her wallet. “Why would I throw money away?” he asked the court at his trial. As Catherine moaned at his feet, probably unable to comprehend what had happened to her, the man viciously stabbed her again and killed her.

The man, who had selected his victim purely at random, ran to his car still parked where he left it. The entire event lasted at least 32 minutes. He said later that murder “was an idea that came into my mind, just as an idea might come into your mind, but I couldn’t put mine aside.” He jumped into his white sedan and fled the scene. A few blocks away, he came to a red light. He glanced over at the car idling next to him and saw that a man was asleep behind the wheel. The killer got out of his car and awakened the sleeping driver. He told the man he should go home. Then the killer, full of himself, $49 richer and not at all ashamed of what he had done, got back into his own car and drove off into the night.

Catherine was his third murder.

At about 3:50 a.m., a neighbor, Karl Ross, who lived on the second floor of Catherine’s building on Austin Street, finally called the police. But before he did, he called a friend in nearby Nassau County and asked his opinion about what he should do. After the police were notified, a squad car arrived within three minutes and quickly found Catherine’s body in the hallway on the first floor. She had been stabbed 17 times. Her torn and cut clothes were scattered about and her open wallet lay on the floor next to her. Her driver’s license identified her as Catherine Genovese. Detectives from the 112 responded and began an exhaustive investigation. It was a frigid, winter morning, and a brisk, unrelenting wind made it seem even colder. A canvass of the neighborhood turned up several witnesses, including the one who had notified the police. When cops finished polling the immediate neighborhood, they discovered at least 38 people who had heard or observed some part of the fatal assault on Kitty Genovese.

Kew Gardens is a residential area located at the center of the borough of Queens, one of the most populated communities in America. If Queens were a city, it would be America’s fifth largest. The area of Kew Gardens is generally middle class where houses in 1964 typically sold for $30,000 to $50,000. It resembled a small village in the suburbs rather than a city neighborhood. Mostly white, working class and typically one of the hundreds of small communities that make up metropolitan New York City, Austin Street is the focal point of the neighborhood. On this neat, picturesque avenue, there are shops, a small park and a busy train station where commuters catch the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central, 15 minutes away. Not the kind of place where one would think a person could be murdered without anyone offering even a smidgen of assistance.

“We thought it was a lover’s quarrel!” said one tenant. “Frankly, we were afraid,” said another witness. One woman who didn’t want her name used said, “I didn’t want my husband to get involved.” Others had different explanations for their conduct. “We went to the window to see what was happening, but the light from our bedroom made it difficult to see the street.” There were lots of excuses. Maybe the most apathetic was the one who told reporters, “I was tired.” But the fact remained that dozens of people stood by and watched a woman being brutally assaulted for an extended period of time, and did nothing.

“If we had been called when he first attacked, the woman might not be dead now,” an assistant chief inspector told the press at the time. New York City Deputy Police Commissioner Walter Arm said, “This tendency to shy away from reporting crimes is a common one.” That was a revelation to the public. Some detectives were stunned. Others simply saw the unwillingness to get involved as representative of the times. Apathy, especially in urban settings, was everywhere, not only in Kew Gardens. In her own defense, one neighbor said she was too afraid to call. “I tried …I really tried,“ she said, “but I was gasping for air and was unable to talk into the telephone.”

As killings go, the murder of Catherine Genovese was not a spectacular one, nor did it generate much publicity when it happened. The original NYCPD complaint report reduced the episode to just five typewritten lines:

 “Karl Ross…heard calls of help at his residence. He saw a woman later identified as Kitty Genovese F-W-28 lying face down in ground floor hallway, she was taken to QGH (Queens General Hospital) by… with multiple stab wounds and pronounced DOA…then taken to morgue.”

There were hundreds of killings in New York City in 1964 and 9,360 murders in America that year. A random killing in the street was not big news. The New York Times delegated a few short paragraphs to the incident on page 12. For two weeks, it lay dormant and gathered virtually no public attention. It wasn’t until March 27, when The Times published its famous “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call” article by  Martin Gansberg, that the killing became big news. The New York City media picked up on the wider themes of the event. Camera crews and newscasters descended on Kew Gardens. The press searched the neighborhood for any scrap of uncovered information, no matter how small or insignificant. Kitty Genovese’s story began to take shape.

By mid-April, the Kitty Genovese story had taken hold and the nation began a lengthy period of analysis and self-deprecation. Why would civilized people turn away from another human being in dire need of assistance? As the details of the killing emerged, it became plain that if any one of the 38 witnesses had simply called the police at the first sign of trouble, the victim could have survived. The initial stab wounds inflicted may not have been fatal. Timely medical treatment could have saved the life of Catherine Genovese.

Were the witnesses really that cold-hearted? People wondered. Some psychologists blamed television for the sad state of affairs in Kew Gardens. In a symposium held in Manhattan’s Barbizon Plaza Hotel in early April 1964, psychiatrist Ralph S. Banay said television was at least partly to blame. “We underestimate the damage that these accumulated images do to the brain,” he said, “The immediate effect can be delusional, equivalent to a sort of post-hypnotic suggestion.” The witnesses became confused, and paralyzed by the violence they witnessed outside their window, he explained. “They were fascinated by the drama, by the action, and yet not entirely sure that what was taking place was actually happening,” he said.

That explanation fit in neatly with what some of the witnesses had told police. They claimed that when they saw the disturbance on Austin Street, they imagined it was an argument between man and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend. None really thought that they were witnessing a real killing. “We thought it was a lover’s quarrel,” one witness said later. Another neighbor repeated that assertion when he said, “I thought they were some kids having some fun!” Others complained of the media attention and said the press made the neighborhood look bad. “These things happen every day all over the world,” one neighbor told a reporter, “The stories were only giving us a black eye!”

Dr. Karl Menninger, a world-renowned psychiatrist and founder of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, also spoke at the symposium. “Public apathy to crime is itself a manifestation of aggressiveness,” he told the audience. People turn away for a variety of reasons, including their desire “not to get involved.”

But were people in big cities more apathetic, colder and indifferent than others in more rural environments? Or was the “Kitty Genovese Syndrome,” as some psychologists characterized it, indicative of society as a whole?

One dynamic brought forth was the Bystander Effect. This theory speculates that as the “number of bystanders increases, the likelihood of any one bystander helping another decreases.” As a result, additional time will pass before anyone seeks outside help for a person in distress. Another hypothesis is something called the Diffusion of Responsibility. This is simply a decrease in the feeling of personal responsibility one feels when in the presence of many other people. The greater the number of bystanders, the less responsibility the individual feels. In cases where there are many people present during an emergency, it becomes much more likely that any one individual will simply do nothing.

In essence, the 38 witnesses felt no responsibility to act because there were so many witnesses. Each one felt that the other witness would do something. Social psychology research supports the notion that Catherine Genovese had a better chance of survival if she had been attacked in the presence of just one witness.

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