The awful news today about the Helicopter crash in Vauxhall, and the way in which the masses responded, got me thinking…

If you say you’ve never passed a nasty car crash/accident/flashing siren and nearly given yourself whiplash craning to get a better ogle of the potentially gruesome scene, you’re lying. We’re all guilty of rubbernecking at nasty accidents – and for those who were recently captured taking pictures of an horrific crash on the M1 near Northamptonshire ( – the word guilty can be used in the most literal of senses.

Whilst this response may be common, understanding why so many of us exhibit ‘Car Crash Syndrome’ is perplexing. Unfortunately, behaviour such as this doesn’t stop at accidents that we stumble across as we go about our normal business; there is an audience who actively seek out pictures of mutilation or tales of gruesome murders, and therefore several dark websites such as or exist to serve them with this content. (I removed these links to prevent our dear friend morbid curiosity tempting you into clicking on them).

As with all things psychology-related, there are several theories in play as to why we can’t look away. Some theories make us seem like bad, bad people (at a very primal, subconscious level) and some make us feel better about the fact that we are all fascinated, to varying degrees, in macabre events. Here’s a selection of explanations for our dark voyeuristic tendencies:

  • The survival theory:

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that observing dangers and their resultant harm allows us to recognise potentially dangerous situations in the future, thus boosting our chances of survival should we ever come across a similar situation. Hm. Interesting. Believable. And yet I can’t agree that that’s the sole psychological reason for rubbernecking. If it was, I’m not convinced we’d find ourselves talking about recent horrific events with our colleagues at the water cooler days after they have passed (do people still have water coolers?).

  • The ‘one up’ theory:

Life, undeniably, is hard. Earning enough money to feed yourself, forming the right kind of relationships to make you happy, keeping yourself healthy in order to prolong survival, is all hard work. Some psychologists rather solemnly believe that witnessing the hardships (and sometimes mortality) of others has the slightly disturbing power of making us feel good, because we’re still alive, and therefore still winning the competition of life.

  • The empathy theory:

Humans, by and large, crave emotional connectivity with our peers. It’s what makes us feel like part of a wider community, makes us feel needed, evokes affection and love. When we see others suffering, our emotions peak. This doesn’t often happen as we go about our mundane daily routines in an otherwise steady and unchanging environment. It helps us to put everything into perspective, and makes us realise that maybe we don’t have things so bad after all.

This, in my humble opinion, is the theory I can most easily buy into: we crave those heightened emotions which often accompany death to make us feel alive.