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.
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