Do We Really Only Care About Ourselves?

Economists say that the amount we give almost always has strings attached.

ByABC News
October 23, 2009, 10:38 AM

Oct. 23, 2009 — -- On a cold night in March 1964, piercing screams woke a neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., and stunned the nation. Forty-five years later, the authors of "SuperFreakonomics," Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, reconsidered those cries for help and asked themselves, "Do we only care about ourselves?"

Twenty-eight-year-old Kitty Genovese was walking toward her apartment unaware that a stranger, Winston Moseley, was following her. He then took a knife out of his pocket and ran toward her.

"He stabbed her in the back two to four times with a hunting knife," Queens historian Joe De May said. "Kitty Genovese screamed bloody murder."

Lights went on in the apartment building across the street. Someone yelled out the window to leave her alone. Startled, the attacker ran back to his car and waited. Genovese summoned the strength to pick herself up and walked around to the back of the building, but she couldn't make it to her own apartment. Moseley found her, collapsed inside the vestibule to another apartment. He stabbed her again and left her to die.

Watch this story on "20/20" TONIGHT at 10 p.m. ET

The crime would soon become infamous -- not simply because of the horrifying things done to Genovese -- but because of what her neighbors didn't do.

"For more than half an hour, 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks," the New York Times reported. "Not one person telephoned the police during the assault."

The idea that no one would call for help -- no one from that apartment building would call police -- shocked an entire nation. It was the mid-60s, crime was on the rise, President Kennedy had been assassinated and people were asking: Do we not care about anyone but ourselves?

"The Kitty Genovese crime, the murder, became a symbol of all that was going wrong with the world," Dubner said. "Of how incredibly, cruelly selfish human beings can be."

The crime got social scientists wondering if we would ignore our own neighbors in need, how about those closest to us?