At a time when human beings have access to an unprecedented volume of information from a huge wealth of sources, one fact has remained unchanged for over a century. Since newspapers began, editors and owners have been quick to realise one key truth about people; we love drama. This taste for scandal has shaped the way that we consume news for generations. From celebrity sex tapes to barbaric acts of terrorism, all are treated as fair game by tabloids looking to win as many readers, or viewers, as possible.
Today, as always, we remain fixated with tabloids and their hyperbolic, dramatic versions of events. Tabloid newspapers still outsell the competition, their websites still get the most traffic, and sensationalist TV news still has the most viewers. As well as being attracted to disaster, we are paying more attention to irrelevant negativity in the lives of others than we have at any point before.
But why this fixation with drama? Is it something to do with empathy, or fear, or even a kind of perverted excitement on our behalf?
In fact, there have been a number of scientific studies that seek to answer this very question and understand just why we are so attracted to drama. Let’s take a look at some of the key ones.
An idea long-held by psychologists states that we are attracted to drama and horror in the news because we are seeking to protect ourselves from the very same dangers. For example, we may be engrossed by the horror of the terrorist attacks on Paris because we are looking to ensure our own safety from exactly this type of horror. As a result of news coverage, the audience may conclude that Paris is no longer somewhere they wish to spend their next vacation, as perhaps they had planned.
This theory can be applied to our interest in more superficial dramas, too. Apparently, obsessing over the struggles of the rich and famous can be attributed to the same self-preserving principles. So when we find ourselves reading about some faded child star checking into rehab, we apparently do so to learn from their mistakes rather than to revel in them.
Essentially, this theory is all about the way in which our attention to drama can help us to avoid it in our own lives. Experts have pointed to man’s former existence in a hunter-gatherer environment, in which grave occurrences had to be met with attention in order to ensure survival. According to Jill McCluskey, a professor of economics at Washington State University: “People will always want bad news because they don’t want those bad situations to happen to them, think of those shark-attack stories in the summer.”
Respect To Hierarchy
The global phenomenon of celebrity culture has prompted many studies into exactly why we take such an interest in the lives of other people. Psychologists like Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary specialist at the University of Michigan, put this obsession with celebrities down to a primitive tendency to observe the dominant individuals in a given society. According to Kruger, we behave in this way because we are actually seeking to learn from celebrities, in order to become more like them and therefore to move up the social hierarchy ourselves.
Proof of this can clearly be seen in the way that so many of us copy the behaviour or image of celebrities, just take a look at the term “style icon” for example. The thing is, we no longer have to behave in this way. Our progression up the social ranks is no longer essential to our survival and to behave in this way is, in fact, to put ourselves on the same level as apes.
Shattering Our Ideals
Researchers Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka set up an experiment at McGill University that sought to shed some light on why we are drawn to drama in the news. In one interpretation of their results, the pair suggest that as individuals, we generally have a view of the world that is considerably more utopian than reality.
Therefore when we are confronted with drama or scandal in the news, we are shocked not only by the events but by the shattering impact they have on our own world view. Imagine that for the majority of us, our outlook on life is a pristine white sheet. When we encounter drama, such as a murder or even a celebrity sex-cheat, it as though the sheet has been stained. Therefore it is the sheer contrast between the stain and the purity of our personal reality that grabs our attention.
The Threat To Democracy
Some psychologists, including Soroka, have suggested that our appetite for drama may have it’s roots not in our instinctive reactions but in something altogether more worldly. They argue that if the democratic role of the media is to act as a fourth estate, then bad news stories are our most effective method of confronting injustice and therefore of preserving democracy.
In this sense, we are attracted to dramatic news not because it poses a direct threat to us as individuals, but because it may endanger the democratic values that many of us hold dear. In this sense at least, when we hear of a terrorist attack, a corrupt politician or even a murder on the news, we consider it as a direct assault on our very way of life and it is for this reason that we are attracted the the drama.