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Why are we so obsessed by true crime stories?

True crime stories like Making a Murderer, Serial, and Dirty John are extremely popular. But why are millions of people, especially women, so obsessed with true crime stories? And is it actually a good thing?

“I didn’t think all these people would care”. Steven Avery, the central figure of the Netflix hit Making a Murderer, couldn’t have been more wrong when he uttered these words in disbelief and wonder. Because as it turned out, people did care: over the past few years, millions of people around the world have followed Avery’s story, making it one of the most popular and talked-about documentaries in recent years. True crime stories seem to become more popular by the day, with new stories spawning through various media such as TV shows, books and podcasts. But why are millions of people, especially women, so obsessed with true crime stories? And is it actually a good thing? Research suggests that engaging with true crime stories may offer us some benefits for future situations, but we should be careful not to take our obsession too far.

True crime stories help us to prepare for future crime-related situations

Recently, many explanations have been put forward for why people tend to be hooked on true crime stories. Some have suggested that such stories are addictive because they offer an adrenaline rush which makes us feel good, whereas others hypothesize that true crime stories allow us to explore frightening and horrific situations in a safe, controlled way. Surprisingly, few of these claims are actually based on empirical evidence. One of the few studies conducted on this topic suggests that true crime stories are appealing because they provide us with valuable information on how we can avoid becoming a victim of crime ourselves, or how we might survive if we ended up in such an unwanted situation. Interestingly, this seems particularly true for women. But why would women be more interested in crime, especially when you consider that men are more likely to be victims? One possible explanation is that women are more afraid of being a victim of a violent crime, and are therefore more interested in survival-related information.

Make sure that you don’t take your obsession too far

So should women all start binge-watching true crime series to prepare themselves for unsafe situations? Perhaps that’s not the best idea, as heightened attention to crime may inadvertently increase and maintain women’s fear, inducing a vicious circle of fear. This maintenance effect is likely to result from anxious people’s reinforced belief that the imagined future crime-related situations are more likely to occur than they actually are. Other possible unwanted side effects of true crime overexposure include paranoia or or reduced risk-taking in relatively safe situations.

What if you already have taken it too far?

Some studies suggest that suppressing recurring future fears can be helpful to regain a positive outlook on the future. However, this approach is not as effective in people with high (trait) levels of anxiety, and may therefore not be the best solution in this case. Arguably, it might be more effective to limit your exposure to crime related information. This way, you won’t constantly reinforce your beliefs about the likelihood of future crime-related events where you are the victim, will be less likely to maintain an enduringly high level of fear.

Can true crime stories also help to ‘make’ murderers?

You might wonder, if true crime stories can provide us – as possible victims – with valuable lessons for future situations, does the same hold true for perpetrators? That is, might these stories help some individuals to actually acquire knowledge that is relevant for committing a crime? A recent study suggests that that individuals who are into true crime stories do indeed have more forensic knowledge that may prevent them from being caught. However, this is not necessarily the result of them engaging with such stories: it may also be that individuals with higher interest in forensics tend to seek out shows that revolve around crime-related information. Thus, it remains unclear whether true crime stories might help perpetrators prepare for crime-related future situations.

Conclusion

Why are we so obsessed with true crime stories? The exact answer to this question is complex and multifaceted, but one important factor is that these kinds of stories can help prospective victims preparefor future encounters with perpetrators. That doesn’t mean that you should start binge-watching true crime shows though, especially if you are prone to anxiety or afraid of future crime-related events. Make sure to monitor your levels of anxiety and tone down your engagement with true crimes stories if you feel your fears are taking over!

This blog was featured on the Leiden Psychology Blog in March 2019

News

Does social media use prevent us from remembering the moments we try to preserve?

Imagine yourself at a party, enjoying drinks with your friends. You are having a great time and decide to snap a picture and post it on Instagram. This will surely help you remember this moment, right? Well, it might, but it will also alter your experience.

Every day, millions of people document and share their experiences on social media, posting about their friends, families, food choices and recent travels. Indeed, saving these moments for ourselves and sharing them with others has become increasingly important, paving the way for new ways of communication and social connection. Interestingly, engaging in this type of behavior may have several perks, as it seems to improve people’s mood and also foster interpersonal benefits, such as the development of trust and a more prosocial orientation towards others. However, recent studies suggest that the very act of documenting and sharing moments may actually alter our memories of these experiences. Does the use of social media ironically prevent us from remembering the moments we try to preserve? In other words, should or shouldn’t we post pictures of our experiences to memorize them?

Does social media use affect memory?
In a series of three studies, American researchers have demonstrated that taking pictures and videos for social media use can impair people’s memories. Participants were asked to watch a TED talk (study 1) or go on self-guided tours of a church on Stanford University’s campus (studies 2 and 3). During these activities, they were asked to record their experience in various ways, including by writing down their thoughts and experiences (either for personal use, sharing purposes or with no specific purpose), by reflecting on these aspects internally, or by describing their physical environment (to distract them from the experience). Across studies, media use resulted in impaired memory for the events, irrespective of whether the recordings would be preserved or shared with others.

Your camera as an external memory device
What is the likely culprit of this media-use induced memory impairment? Based on the aforementioned findings, some researchers believe that the impairment may occur while recording the event. This idea is in line with several studies on the so-called photo-taking-impairment effect (i.e., taking pictures impairs memories). A common explanation for this effect is based on the idea of transactive memory, where the burden of remembering something is shared among several people, or in this case, between a person and a camera. In a recent set of studies, researchers of the University of California tested this offloading hypothesis. Camera use resulted in impaired memories, regardless of whether participants believed that they could use their camera as transactive memory partner. As such, these results suggest that  the offloading hypothesis may not (fully) explain media-use induced memory impairment.

Your camera as a visual spotlight
An alternative explanation holds that recording an event may either disengage or distract people from the experience, or primarily focuses their attention on specific aspects of the experience. In both cases, this causes people to process the experience differently. Although this idea requires further testing, some preliminary evidence supports the hypothesis. A group of researchers from the United States showed that taking pictures (which is an visually-oriented activity) led participants to attend to visual rather than auditory aspects of their experiences. Visual memory proved particularly strong for the photographed aspects of the experience. As such, this study suggests that recording an event may actually even boost our memories, albeit in a biased fashion.

Conclusion
Now that we know about the possible effects of media use on our memories, should you still post pictures of that epic party to your Instagram stories? If you aim to experience it on as many levels as possible, it is probably best if you don’t. On the other hand, taking pictures and sharing them may help you focus on the aspects of an experience that are particularly important or salient to you. Moreover, it allows you to revisit (the photographed details of) the experience, which may ultimately result in an even better (but also more biased) memory. So if you want to record and share something on social media, make sure that you capture what you want to remember!

This blog was featured on the Leiden Psychology Blog in September 2018.