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Southern Religion

An outrage

Accounts of the incident provoke natural outrage and moral concern. Although we don’t know how well those accounts will withstand future examination:

A 15-year-old girl was gang-raped, beaten, and robbed by six to ten men ranging in age from 15 to their early 20s on Saturday in Richmond, Calif., after leaving her high school homecoming dance. More appallingly, police say, over the course of two hours, as many as two dozen people witnessed the crime, but didn’t interfere.

Some have already ascribed observer reactions to bystander effect. That may be correct, although the phenomenon is complex and not well-applied from a distance. We simply do not know, and the best-known incident of this kind is a caution against rush to judgment:

At 3:15 a.m. on March 13, 1964, Catherine Susan Genovese was raped and stabbed to death by a serial killer in a widely misreported incident which prompted research into diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect.

The event itself, however, was not as originally reported. There may have been no bystanders who were in a position to help, and who failed to act. The defamatory moral judgment passed on people living in the area at the time were apparently wrongheaded.

In 2007, Rachel Manning, Mark Levine and Alan Collins published a study of it in American Psychologist:

This article argues that an iconic event in the history of helping research–the story of the 38 witnesses who remained inactive during the murder of Kitty Genovese–is not supported by the available evidence. Using archive material, the authors show that there is no evidence for the presence of 38 witnesses, or that witnesses observed the murder, or that witnesses remained inactive. Drawing a distinction between the robust bystander research tradition and the story of the 38 witnesses, the authors explore the consequences of the story for the discipline of psychology. They argue that the story itself plays a key role in psychology textbooks. They also suggest that the story marks a new way of conceptualizing the dangers of immersion in social groups. Finally, they suggest that the story itself has become a modern parable, the telling of which has served to limit the scope of inquiry into emergency helping.

There may be either more wrong in Richmond, Calif., or less, than we can responsibly infer from published accounts.

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October 28, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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