Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police

319851_fire_alarm.jpgI’m sure you’ve all received plenty emails that have been sent to multiple recipients, where the gist of the message is a request:

“Will one of you please do [something useful]?”

These messages are usually an exercise in futility — nobody bothers to handle the request, because we each say to ourselves “someone else will handle it”.

In an attempt to understand the reasons behind this, I did some digging. I had never realized this topic could be so fascinating.

No, I have not mistakenly pasted in the wrong text for the title. It’s from a story in the New York Times (March 27, 1964), which describes a shocking phenomenon. I’ll show you how it connects with our topic.

On March 13, 1964 at about 3:20 am, 28 year old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese parked her car outside her apartment building at 8720 Austin St., Queens, New York City. Her car was only 100 feet from the entrance to the building, but she was followed and brutally stabbed multiple times by an attacker before she reached it. Kitty’s screams awoke many of the neighbors, some of whom shouted at the attacker, who ran off. As soon as the neighbors has turned their lights back off, Kitty’s assailant returned until her screams triggered more opened windows and lights. After driving away, the attacker returned yet again and finished her off.

The police were called by a neighbor at 3:50 am, half an hour after Kitty’s screams had first woken the neighbors. They arrived within two minutes. The caller admitted that he’d phoned a friend for advice before finally calling the police.

The police detectives discovered that no less than thirty-eight people had witnessed various parts of the crime, yet not one of them called the police before it was too late. These are some of the excuses they made:

“We thought it was a lover’s quarrel!”

“Frankly, we were afraid.”

“I didn’t want my husband to get involved.”

“We went to the window to see what was happening, but the light from our bedroom made it difficult to see the street.”

“I was tired.”

“I tried … I really tried, but I was gasping for air and was unable to talk into the telephone.”

I am sure that if any of these witnesses had thought that they were the only person who could help, they would have each called the police in time to save Kitty Genovese.

Sociologists, economists and psychologists have all researched this type of behavior.

  • Social cueing theory predicts that people are less likely to act when they believe that others are capable of acting.
  • Economists call this the volunteer dilemma. The larger a group of people is, the less likely a specific member is to volunteer to perform a service that benefits the group.
  • Psychologists call this phenomenon diffusion of responsibility.

It makes sense. People generally act to further their own interests. In a large group, assuming that a volunteer will actually come forward, the convenience of not volunteering outweighs any advantage of volunteering. In small groups, the assumption that someone else will come forward is a bit shaky, especially when peer pressure is brought to bear. Self-interest is often well-aligned with the interests of a small group, so each individual is much more likely to volunteer.

How does this apply to email? Greg Barron and Eldad Yechiam of the Technion technology institute in Haifa, Israel performed the following experiment:

  • They sent emails to 240 students, researchers and administrative staff, from a fictitious student called Sarah Feldman.
  • The emails asked whether the Technion had a biology department.
  • Messages were either addressed to a single recipient or addressed to five recipients.

Apart from the respondents who tried to chat Sarah up, the responses were divided into three categories:

  • Unhelpful: “Find the web page and look it up yourself!”
  • Helpful: “Yes, there is a biology department.”
  • Very Helpful: “Yes, there is a biology department, and here are the phone numbers …”

I was surprised to read that of the messages sent to five people, 50% of the recipients actually responded. (I like to attribute this high figure to the “damsel in distress” effect on the Technion’s predominantly male student body. In fact, other studies have shown that women do indeed elicit higher response rates than men.) However, only 16% of these responses were considered to be Very Helpful.

The response rate of the people who received individually addressed messages was 64%, and 33% of these were classed as Very Helpful.

The study clearly shows that individually addressed messages elicit both a signifcantly higher response rate and responses of a significantly better quality.

Every time I see a poorly written email that ignores this phenomenon, I feel sorry for the author who is wasting his time. He’s not wasting my time, though — having set up my Outlook rules to color-code my messages, messages where I’m the only recipient on the To: line get a special color. These are the ones I read first, because I know that if I don’t handle them, nobody else will.

It’s very easy to use this behavioral phenomenon to get people to respond. If you require action, you must explicitly ask for it, and in order to avoid diffusion of responsibility, you must assign it to a specific person:

  • The person whose responsibility it is to act, should be the only person on the To: line.
  • If it is not clear whose natural responsibility it is, arbitrarily nominate one person to be responsible, and address it to this person, as mentioned in the previous point.
  • If different actions are required of multiple people, consider using separate messages. If it still makes more sense to use a single message (e.g., to show everyone how the individual assignments fit into a wider context), explicitly list the assignees’ names alongside their corresponsing tasks, and do this towards the top of the message.

If you are too lazy to personalize the messages you send, how lazy do you think the recipients will be?


14 responses to “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police

  1. An excellent, interesting post with practical suggestions (i.e., addressing your e-mail effectively) at the bottom. I’ve been a steady reader of your blog, and I await other articles like this.

    I use Outlook rules, too, but found your rule for specially color-coding any e-mails where you’re the only recipient a valuable tip.

    Good luck!

    Moshe Rubin

  2. Great post. I think I know a couple of people I am going to forward this post to….

  3. I actually thought it would be interesting to try the Technion experiment in another country, for example, the US or the UK, and see if the response rates were similar. If not, it would signify that culture issues might also play a part in the final results.

  4. Very nice post. Like Moshe I like the guidelines a lot. I hope that someone looks into Liza’s idea of cultural differences.
    Greg (previously at the Technion, now at Harvard Business School)

  5. Douglas Adams calls this phenomenon “someone else’s problem”.

  6. I ‘ve read a very interesting article in Reader’s Digest. Before Pearl Harbour’s attack there were a few signals different people noticed of an uncommon activity but they ignored them. If all them were addressed the attack would not happen but even if one of them was communicated and the appropriated action followed, things would have a different course.
    When I want to ask a question to a group of friends I use a template and do it induividually. Otherwise, nobody answers me!

  7. I only have one problem with this technique-

    What happens when you have a large group of people working on a common project, and one person decides to remove several other people from the cc list?

    Now, it becomes a situation where information is lost. Those people that were removed from the cc list so that responsibility would not diffuse, are now ‘out of the loop.’ Their effective participation in completing the project has been restricted since they have not received important pieces of information.

    Very few people I know choose to distinguish between whether they are listed on the To: line or the Cc: line. All that matters is that it somehow arrived in their Inbox.

    I believe email is not an effective communication medium for anything but the most trivial of subjects.

  8. I am not advocating removing people from the CC: list if they need to be updated. However, there is a sharp contrast between To: and CC: recipients.

    The correct way for handling the case you describe is to address the email to the person who needs to act, and copy the others. If I receive a message where I’m the only one on the To: line, but I see a whole bunch of people on the CC: line, there is no diffusion of responsibility because of the contrast in the way I was addressed — it’s obvious it was meant for me and the others don’t need to act.

    If the recipients on the To: and CC: lines appear randomly distributed, then there is diffusion of responsibility, as the distinction between To: and CC: has disappeared. For this reason, when using Reply-to-All, it is often necessary to re-arrange the recipients between the To: and CC: lines.

    People who do not pay attention to the distinction between To: and CC: are losing out because it can save lots of time and stress. (BTW I know a number of people who route CC: messages to a special folder which they read only at the end of the day.)

  9. It’s also called the bystander effect. Is an image we, a society, demands on someone to be proper, right? I mean, a large portion of ‘me before you’ is instinct since way back. But, as The Lottery by Shirley Jackson explained, traditions change with time. What used to be necessary isn’t always ethical in today’s society. People’s emotions have not evolved at the same rate as we have physically and technologically.

    It’s funny… In my law studies class, the majority believes the witnesses should not be punished but at the same time believing being cought with weed is worse and ‘needs’ harsh punishment. I wonder, am I missing something?

    I stumbled upon your blog while searching for more information on Kitty Genovese for I am writing an essay on “the only sure and valid aim – speaking of art as a weapon -is the humanizing of man.”

    I’m hardly 16 and I still can’t believe the lack of empathy people posess.

  10. The story was exciting and quite frightening yet thrilling. I still don’t get the ending of the story. Until now people keep on investigating the so-called “syndrome” of the neighborhood. It is sometimes called “someone else’s problem.” This story is one of the most wonderful stories I have read. I want more.

  11. The story of Genovese’s murder became an almost-instant parable about the supposed callousness, or at least apathy to others’ plight, of either New York City, urban America, or humanity in general. Much of this framing of the event came in reaction to an investigative article [2] in the New York Times written by Martin Gansberg and published on March 27, two weeks after the murder. The article bore the provocative headline “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police”; the public view of the story crystallized around a quote from the article, from an unidentified neighbor who saw part of the attack but deliberated, before finally getting another neighbor to call the police: “I didn’t want to get involved.”

    Other reports, cited by Harlan Ellison in his book Harlan Ellison’s Watching, stated that one man turned up his radio so that he wouldn’t hear Genovese’s screams. Ellison says that the report he read attributed the “get involved” quote to nearly all of the thirty-eight who supposedly witnessed the attack.

    While Genovese’s neighbors were vilified by the article, in truth “38 onlookers who did nothing” is a misleading conception. The article begins:

    “For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”
    This lead is dramatic but factually inaccurate. None of the witnesses observed the attacks in their entirety. Because of the layout of the complex and the fact that each attack took place in a different location as Genovese attempted to flee her attacker, it would have been physically impossible for a witness to have seen the entire attack. Most only heard portions of the incident without realizing its seriousness, a few saw only small portions of the initial assault, and no witnesses directly saw the final rape and attack in an exterior hallway which resulted in Genovese’s death.

  12. Fritzgerdan… there simply must be a parable that illustrates how people do not want facts to get in the way of the point made by another parable… or maybe this is it…

  13. Last year I was really shocked when a toddler starved to death in the town where I live. His mother had left him alone in the house and went downtown to run some errands. She suffered an epilepsia stoke and died on the street. She was taken to the morgue and labeled as NN. Two weeks later some neighbors finally decided to enter her house to find the body of her son under the bed. He had hid there and finally died when her mother never returned home.
    Ever since that I use this article in my classroom to get my studets to talk about this and try to raise a little civil consciousness.

  14. Interesting article and email experiment. However, the title of the article and the related story printed in the NY Times, has recently been disproved in the book, Superfreakonomics (chapter 3). The liberal media, even back in 1964, don’t just report the news — they oftentimes create it!

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