Morbid Curiosity, Habitual Behavior in the Digital Age
Morbid curiosity is a part of being human. Plutarch claimed that morbid curiosity is the disobedience of reason and that everyone practices it. It involves looking at what’s forbidden or socially unacceptable, even perverse.
You might remember the first and rather controversial episode of Black Mirror called “The National Anthem”. It presented an extremely controversial situation. A member of the British Royal family had been kidnapped. Her captors stated that they would only release her if the prime minister had sex with a pig on live television.
We’ll avoid any spoilers, in case you haven’t seen it. However, without a doubt, the audience greatly anticipated this particular episode and didn’t hesitate in watching such a grotesque scene. This is a clear example of the phenomenon where the media goes beyond what’s morally correct in order to provoke morbid curiosity in the viewer.
Morbid curiosity and the Internet
As we mentioned earlier, everyone at some point has experienced morbid curiosity. Studies conducted at the University of Amsterdam suggest that humans are often secretly attracted to morbid scenes. In fact, it forms part of our instinctive behavioral repertoire.
The study suggests that this type of behavior continually occurs on the Internet. Furthermore, it isn’t just pornography-related. In fact, morbid curiosity goes much further. For instance, when the actor Paul Walker died in a car crash, millions of people searched the Internet for images of the accident.
The same happened with the death of Princess Diana. Dozens of magazines tried to get hold of pictures of the accident. Their reason was clear. If they could get hold of the photos, their sales would go through the roof. However, does this suggest that people are immoral or indecent? In reality, what these types of behavior show is that there’s another side to being human. A side that’s a little perverse, a side that’s all too well known by the Internet.
A surfer’s attacked by a shark. There’s an attack in the Middle East with hundreds of deaths. The images are Dantesque. Reality shows, where you see what celebrities do in their private lives. A child with a rare disease who has tumors similar to those of the Elephant Man……
Thousands of examples show how media and social media use people’s morbid curiosity to increase their audience figures. Then, of course, there’s clickbait. That’s when people are lured by sensationalist headlines. The reader then has to click on a specific link to another page for more information.
There are many forms of media that appeal to this darker side of being human. Furthermore, it isn’t a new phenomenon. One example occurred on April 8, 1949, in San Marino, California. Kathy Fiscus, a girl of three, fell into an abandoned well. Radio announcers across the country broadcast the failed attempts to rescue her for the next 28 hours.
She was eventually recovered but was already dead. However, audience ratings were the largest ever. News at the time mentioned a quote from George Gallup back in 1923. He said that the media doesn’t want to report news, that they really want to hijack people’s attention and profit from it. The way in which they achieve this is by preying on people’s morbid curiosity.
Morbid curiosity, between biology, empathy, and dark pleasure
Not everybody behaves in the same way. For example, if there’s a traffic accident near your house, not everyone chooses to look. There’ll be some who come to see it and others who avoid it at all costs. However, in the privacy of your own home, on your laptop or mobile phone, you’re able to break through all moral barriers and see what you like.
We know it’s a part of our instinctive behavioral repertoire. However, what purpose does it serve? Some suggest it has a biological purpose. That you learn and understand by seeing things you don’t see every day. Like a dead body, for example. You also do it to empathize. You want to see the person who’s suffering so you can understand and emotionally connect with them.
However, we can’t ignore that some people will delight in seeing something bad. In these cases, there’s a line to be drawn between a healthy and an unhealthy morbid curiosity. The latter delves deeply into the perverse. In fact, this particular behavior is sometimes pathological.
As Carl Jung once said, we all have a shadow inside us that hides a part of ourselves. It seems that morbid curiosity forms a part of that darker side.It might interest you...
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Oosterwijk, S. (2017). Choosing the negative: A behavioral demonstration of morbid curiosity. PLoS ONE, 12(7). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178399
- Kidd C, Hayden BY. The Psychology and Neuroscience of Curiosity. Neuron. 2015;88(3):449-460. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.010.
- Loewenstein G. The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychol Bull. 1994;116(1):75-98. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.116.1.75.