2.8. A Fly on the Wall

Imagine You are a fly. You as an actual fly on a wall, standing upright on your little insect legs.

You’re on the outside wall of an apartment block and your beady eyes have a view across the car park.

It’s Queens, New York, 1964, and you’re about to witness a murder.

It’s 3am and a car pulls up into the car park and a young woman named Catherine Genovese steps out of the car.

Then from out of the shadows a man appears with a knife. Catherine sees the man and, instead of walking in the direction of her flat, she veers towards the nearest police box.

Her walk turns into a run when she realizes the stranger is chasing her.

You see that Catherine is not fast enough. The man easily catches up with her and plunges the knife into her back. Catherine falls to the ground facing her attacker and he slices his knife into her gut. Catherine screams out, “Oh my god! He stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!”

Straight away from the apartment block opposite, you can see lights flicker on.

Then you hear a voice yelling out, “Leave that girl alone.” The man runs off back into the shadows and you can see Catherine lying in a pool of blood.

But she’s not dead. There’s still life in her yet.

Under your watchful fly’s eyes, she manages to drag herself into a dark corner. But still no-one comes to help her.

Why isn’t a human coming to the urgent aid of another?

The lights go off from the apartment block and the street falls silent. All you can see is Catherine’s body slumped against a wall, fighting for life. Then the attacker reappears and he stabs her in the throat and then in the genitals.

Stab! Stab! Stab!

Her screams shatter the cold night air.

Then there is a silence as she dies.

The minutes pass and then slowly you see the lights in the apartment blocks flicker back on.

The Newspaper Reports

Catherine and Winston

The newspapers report the murder like any other in a poor part of New York, I.e. with no real attention at all.

The murderer is captured and named as Winston Moseley.

During his trial it is established that a total of 35 minutes passed between Catherine first getting out of her car and lying murdered in the street. In total there are 38 witnesses to the crime, who all saw some part of the prolonged attack taking place from their apartment block.

Only after Catherine had died did one of them call the police.

When the fact that there were so many witnesses was reported, New York newspapers received a barrage of letters from public. The letters carried outrage from the public that 38 witnesses stood by and did nothing. At the time, the voice of the public demanded that these 38 witnesses should be named and shamed.

Should they have been?

They never were, mainly due to the legal restrictions of how the trial was reported.

Two scientists, John Darley of New York University and Bibb Latene of Columbia University, read the letters to the newspapers like everyone else but didn’t ask, ‘should they be blamed?’

Instead, they asked, ‘Why did they do nothing?’

Affect Denial

A theory put forward was Affect Denial meaning that the witnesses were so shocked into numbness they couldn’t respond.

However, Darley and Latene were unsatisfied with this response. All the witnesses were safe in their apartments. The risk of personal injury was almost zero. Yet the 38 witnesses choose to do nothing. So the two scientists did what scientists do.

They conducted an experiment.

The Seizure of Response Experiment

Imagine You are a student and you’re studying at college.

You’ve been invited to take part in a study of the pressures of exams, something you can relate to.

The study is slightly strange in that you find yourself sitting in a private booth with blacked-out windows and a microphone.

You’re told that there are a number other students participating, just like you, in adjoining private booths.

But you can’t see them.

All you can see is the booth you are in.

You’re also told that a loud speaker system links the booths together.

A voice crackles from the speakers and gives the following instructions, “Each student has two minutes to speak about the pressures of exams. Only when it is your turn can you speak into the microphone. At all other times your microphone is switched off. Every student will be asked to speak twice.”

The study begins.

The first student introduces themselves and begins by saying that they have epilepsy. They say this is triggered when they get stressed, so therefore they really hate exams. A few other students are next giving their opinions on exam pressure, before it is your turn.

You speak clearly and slowly into the microphone explaining your issues with exams and before you know it your two minutes in the spotlight are up and the conversation continues with the next person.

The study has gone round all the participants and is back to the first student.

As first student nears the end of their next two minutes you can hear a tremble in her voice. She stumbles over another sentence. “Help me. I’m having a seizure right now,” she says with the words shaking from her mouth. Then ‘click’, her microphone goes dead and the baton of speech is handed to the next person.

What do you do?

Do you:

  • Go and help the student directly
  • Find the person conducting the study and ask them for help
  • Carry on with study as normal and wait until the conversation is back

Decide now.

The Seizure of Response Results

Like Milgram’s earlier obedience experiment, Darley and Latene’s own experiment was a fake. The student with epilepsy was a stooge who mimicked the illness.

You have been tricked.

But this time you knew it didn’t you?

By having each student isolated in adjoining booths, Darley and Latene tried to replicate the effect of living together in an apartment block – joined together, but at the same time separate.

In Darley and Latene’s first experiment 59 male and 13 female students took part. Very few of the students, only 31% decided to “disobey” carrying on with study and chose to help the epileptic woman. This compares closely to the 35% disobedience rate that Milgram reported in his study.

Darley and Latene repeated the experiment with various sizes of groups to see if the student’s response would change.

They found that when the student was in a group of four or more the student was unlikey to seek help for the victim.

The two scientists also discovered that if the student did not respond after three minutes then they were highly unlikely to help at all.

Only when it appeared no-one else could help then the majority of the Students would try and help.


The experiment led Darley and Latene to declare in their published findings that the witnesses of the Catherine Genovese murder were, “In a state of indecision and conflict concerning whether to respond or not.”

They called this the Diffusion of Responsibility.

Darley and Latene argued that the presence of more observers makes us lose confidence not gain it. This seems to go against the animal instinct we all have in safety in numbers. The more people that witness an event the less responsible any one individual feels to act.

From their findings, Darley and Latane developed a five-step plan of action to follow when an emergency occurs.

1. You, the potential helper, must notice an event is occurring
2. You must interpret the event as one in which help is needed
3. You must assume personal responsibility
4. You must decide what action to take
5. You must then take the action

This guide seems almost blindingly obvious, but take a second look. In a culture where blame always gets shifted around and never pinned down, we have something that says we should all help when we can.

The above is a survival guide.

Take responsibility.

Image from www.openpr.com

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