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Do you recall Kitty Genovese’s murder? It was on a New York City street with 38 neighbors watching the 30 minute attack, and not calling the police. It was in 1964, so I understand if you don’t recall it. However, you will recall the psychology studies and practices it prompted. It started the term bystander apathy.
I recall learning of Kitty and the 38 neighbors who chose not to save her in the book, Superfreakonomics. I read it on the flight from Melbourne eight years ago when I left Australia. Since then I have referenced it many times. The most recent was just a few weeks ago.
However, that’s not what happened on that cold March night in NYC, and I knew that. I was betrayed by my brain.
The Freakonomics podcast (a podcast spin-off from the books) discussed the case in their recent episode discussing the psychology terms we get wrong. They started discussing Kitty Genovese, and my reaction was “oh, great. I love this case”. But, as they were discussing it, the details sounded unfamiliar. There wasn’t really 38 neighbors watching, and the police were called. That’s not how I remembered the case. It’s definitely not how I have been describing the case. The podcast discussion then referenced them describing the case accurately in the Superfreakonomics book. What? How?
I checked. Yes, they did. I learned the facts correctly and promptly forgot them. I apologize to everyone whom I have misled.
To be honest, I’m not going to look into the reasons why my brain betrayed me. There are many reasons to justify it. I read the book during my longest day. I recall not being awake enough to follow a trashy TV show on the final flight, so that could be part of it. I’m not the only one who has misremembered the case, so there has been lots of subtle reinforcement of my version in the years following.
This is a lesson to question my understanding and to always fact check, even if I’m sure I’m right.
To those who I “lied” to, bystander apathy is a proven phenomenon. It’s just Kitty Genovese’s murder is not an example of it.
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