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There’s a biological reason why we’re obsessed with true crime shows: expert

The average respondent consumes five true crime programs each month.

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(Photo by Faruk Tokluoğlu via Pexels)

Watching true crime shows may help prepare you if you find yourself in a similar situation, according to an expert on morbid curiosity.

Coltan Scrivner, a research scientist at Recreational Fear Lab and an expert in morbid curiosity, feels there’s an almost primal reason people are endlessly fascinated by true crime content.

According to Scrivner, morbid curiosity about dangerous people likely began some 300,000 years ago when humans began using language and engaging in proactive aggression instead of reactive aggression.

“Now this presents a problem for people because with proactive aggression, it’s hard to tell who is plotting to harm you,” says Scrivner. “So this put a selection pressure on our minds to learn to seek out information about people who are potentially dangerous.

“True crime can have a learning component to it or at least a perceived learning component. We feel like we’re more prepared in these kinds of situations. So if this dangerous situation were to occur, you feel a little more prepared and know what you should or shouldn’t do.”

This claim is supported by research data collected by OnePoll. The new survey of 2,000 self-reported true crime fans found that 76% feel that consuming content about true crime helps them avoid similar situations happening to them.

The average respondent consumes five true crime programs each month, with 75% saying they watch the latest program the instant it's released and 71% typically binge-watching the entire thing in one sitting.

The survey also found that 44% of respondents admit they have a “favorite” serial killer and 67% would like the opportunity to chat with one.

Over seven in ten of those polled (71%) also admit to feeling less trustworthy of other people due to how much true crime content they consume.

But can watching too much content about violent crime make one more likely to commit a violent crime? Scrivener doesn’t see a connection.

“So there are distinctions between becoming desensitized to seeing graphic content on your television and being OK with graphic content happening around you. A great example of this would be the research on violent video games over the course of the last 20 years,” continued Scrivner. “It was a huge deal because people were concerned that as video games became more realistic and as the violence became more realistic that it would cause kids, in particular, to become more violent.

“But the research is pretty clear at this point that playing violent video games doesn’t make kids more violent; I would be fairly sure that the same is true of something like true crime, where watching true crime doesn’t make you less empathetic towards the victims or more empathetic towards the killer or anything like that. It might have some psychological effects but it’s very unlikely that it would have any effects along those lines.”

Survey methodology:

This random double-opt-in survey of 2,000 American true crime fans was commissioned between Dece. 16, 2022 and Jan. 4, 2023. It was conducted by market research company OnePoll, whose team members are members of the Market Research Society and have corporate membership to the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research (ESOMAR).

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