“Pluralistic Ignorance” in Genovese Murder

In Jane Jocob’s The Life and Death, she emphasizes an urban planning model based on empirical and humanistic observation, with pluralistic possibilities and use of creative placemaking. For this journal I will discuss the murder of Catherine Genovese in Queens, New York. On a day in March, 1964, Genovese was murdered on her way home from work. This was not a quick homicide by any means. In fact, the victim received a long, loud, and tortured death that lasted a total of thirty five minutes. What is most baffling about the situation is that 38 of her neighbors watched in safety from their apartment windows without even lifting a finger to call the police. So how could 38 seemingly good people let an innocent woman die without giving her the help that she needed? When interviewed about the murder even the witnesses were bewildered by their own inaction. “I don’t know”, many said. “I just don’t know”. This wasn’t simply apathy. It was something else. The answer according to Robert B. Cialdini, author of Influence: the Psychological Art of Persuasion, was something called “pluralistic ignorance” a subsection of social proof, which is the idea that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. “Pluralistic ignorance” is the idea that everybody is looking to see what everybody is doing to find out how to behave. In this case, the 38 onlookers looked to each other to see how they should respond to the murder, saw each other looking shocked and bewildered and were not able to act as individuals. Mutual inaction caused the event to be roundly interpreted as nonemergency. In an emergency situation, with several bystanders around, the potential for aid is reduced, as each individual feels less personal responsibility to the situation. In fact if one onlooker was faced with this situation, they would feel more obligated to provide the help needed to save the victim. This psychological phenomena would be considered by Jane Jacobs as a humanistic approach to city planning, based on how people behave and act towards one another. There are multiple perspectives to be considered in urban planning, and having many eyes on the street is not always an advantage for the safety of its residents. One must consider all aspects of human nature to create the safest urban environment possible.

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