Cheryl Paradis, Psy.D.

Cheryl Paradis Psy.D.

The Measure of Madness

Did New Yorkers Ignore A Dying Man?

Did Passers-by’s Ignore A man As He Bled To Death?

Posted May 09, 2010

People see what they expect to see, especially when the situation is ambiguous. It was early in the morning, on April 18, when Mr. Tale -Yax, a 31-year-old, homeless man, was stabbed and killed. A surveillance camera's video showed Mr. Tale-Yax being stabbed when he went to help a woman who was being attacked. He lay bleeding on the sidewalk as many individuals passed by and did not stop to help him.

Many in the press compared Mr. Tale-Yax's death to the killing of Kitty Genovese on March 13th, 1964. Ms. Genovese was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death by a mentally ill man named Winston Moseley. A New York Times front page headline ran, "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police. Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector" (Gansberg, New York Times, 1964).

For many years Kitty Genovese's death was interpreted as a tragic case of bystander apathy. The story of her death was described in a book entitled, Thirty Eight Witnesses (Rosenthal, 1964/1999). The myth of the 38 witnesses was even been highlighted in introductory psychology texts as an example of diffusion of responsibility.

Recent examination of the Genovese murder, however, has thrown these interpretations into question (Manning, Levine and Collins, 2007). It is now known that the neighbors could not see the attack and almost certainly misperceived the situation (De May, 2006). Ms. Genovese's cries were ambiguous. Some of the neighbors probably concluded that she was drunk or involved in a lover's quarrel. They did not intervene because they did not understand that she needed help, not because they were uncaring individuals. Some neighbors may actually have called the police.

Social psychological research has clearly demonstrated that bystanders are less likely to intervene in ambiguous situations (Darley and Latane, 1968, 1970). Numerous studies have shown that bystanders go through a decision-making process before they decide to offer help. First, they must notice the situation. Then they must judge the situation to be an emergency. Bystanders are more likely to offer help if the emergency is clear cut and the bystander feels responsible.

The video of Mr. Tale-Yax's death is very disturbing. Many reporters cast blame on those who did not stop to help him. Two reporters, for example, wrote, "One man bent
down to the sidewalk to shake the man, lifting him to reveal a pool of blood before walking away" (Sulzberger and Meenan, New York Times, April 26, 2010).

The authors could not know what this man saw. They most likely watched the videotape and saw what they expected to see-New Yorkers refusing to help a dying man
I believe these reporters may have rushed to judgment. The authors did not review the extensive psychology research on bystander intervention and helping behavior.

I cannot conclude that the people who did not offer Mr. Tale-Yax help were callous or indifferent. In my experience New Yorkers are very helpful to those they know are in need. I watched the tape of Mr. Tale-Yax's death many times. It was not clear to me that the passersby were aware that he had been stabbed. I believe most of them, if not all, erroneously concluded that he was drunk or sleeping. What is tragic about Mr. Tale-Yax's death is not that people passed by and did not help, but rather that New Yorkers are not alarmed to see a man lying on the sidewalk. We see so many homeless people that we do not stop to think about it. That's the real tragedy.

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