Updated: Dec 12, 2022
We've all seen it.
A car crashed on the shoulder of a freeway. Police cars near it. Officers are still standing there, filling out paper work. You had watched as the ambulance raced past you ten minutes earlier to get to the scene, but it's gone now.
The driver is gone, too. Are they dead? Or hurt? How badly? Even though now there is nothing obstructing the road, traffic hasn't resumed. The point where gridlock transforms into normal-speed driving is still at the crash site as driver after driver pauses to gaze a moment at the demolished car and feel a riveting sensation at the sight.
As your head fills with blood, blood pumped with fresh chemicals, you too feel a heightened attention, laser-like focus, a rush of physical energy. It's a euphoric.
But the feeling is also, you admit, rather disturbing. After all, someone might have just died. It feels wrong to just stare like that.
But you just can't look away.
The term for this is "morbid curiosity." A fascination with the death or harm. It seems to be a universal human instinct.
Social morbid curiosity
But it seems another kind of death and harm attract us just as strongly: social death and harm.
A celebrity falls from grace for a regretful comment. A YouTuber is demolished for a cheesy or very enthusiastic performance. A politician is caught up in an alleged scandal. A new true crime series is released. A coworker is fired.
Why are we drawn so? I think in large part it's a survival instinct. If someone is harmed, it means that we too can become harmed, and by fixating on the cause of that harm, by staring at it, we won't be caught off guard if the danger approaches us. If we can see the jaguar, it can't sneak up on us.
But instead of being filled with panic and dread as when you really are in danger, morbid curiosity feels strangely . . . enjoyable. Why else do we watch roasts. Ricky Gervais stabs people in the chest with his words, and we call it entertainment. It's a thrill.
It's a thrill ride
In fact, it's the very same emotional mechanics behind every thrill ride.
Thrill rides, like roller coasters and drop towers, give us the sensation of danger but with an assurance of safety.
When we're in danger, multiple performance-enhancing and pain-overriding chemicals pour into our blood. Adrenaline, endorphins, dopamine. We love the feelings those brain drugs give us. But we obviously don't want to have to be in a real dangerous situation to get them. But with thrill rides--or action movies, or reading about a political scandal--we don't need to. We're strapped in to a metal ride vehicle. We're reading from a safe distance. We simultaneously feel that this danger could harm us (it's so fast, high, and steep; if it happened to them it could happen to me) and that we are safe from it.
The disturbing feeling that accompanies morbid curiosity is that we know that we are taking enjoyment at the knowledge of someone else's suffering. It's not malevolent, but it's still there. And just as instinctual as this curiosity is the deeply-felt knowledge that it's wrong to take pleasure another's pain, even indirectly. So we turn away from the wreck and step on the gas, realizing, too, with some guilt that we were also holding up traffic for that one second.
An even darker side
But when we're watching a dumpster fire on the Internet, it seems that moment of guilt, accountability, and willing cessation is much less potent. Perhaps because we are so completely removed from the people and circumstances involved we toss our own molotov cocktail without a second thought, craving to see the flame continue and glad at a chance to stoke the ire.
I wonder if there's another instinct at play here. My dad tells a joke about divorce lawyers who send out random love letters on Valentine's Day, hoping to boost business. Do we ever cause harm to another so we can slake our own morbid curiosity? For some of us, can that curiosity mutate into sadism?
Perhaps that's a bit extreme. I imagine the line between the two is very thick for most of us. But it is interesting to note that the difference between the two is simply who caused the harm, you or some other person or force.
A brighter side: morbid compassion
Ok, let's step away in the opposite direction. (There, that feels better.) If there is a continuum between morbid curiosity and sadism, then going in the other direction is what you might call morbid compassion.
⟵ Sadism — Morbid Curiosity — Morbid Compassion ⟶
If the difference between sadism and morbid curiosity is who caused the pain, then the difference between morbid curiosity and morbid compassion is what to do about the pain. A curious mind wants to know more, to look on, to have answers to the question of who and how. A compassionate heart wants to help, to heal, to put an end to the hurt and pain of the people involved.
Morbid compassion is what funds GoFundMe campaigns, where you give money to a friend of a friend facing hardship. Morbid compassion drives people in Tennessee to drive down to Florida to help people repair and rebuild after a hurricane. Morbid compassion stirs up college students to volunteer at local schools to tutor underprivileged kids struggling in reading or math.
Morbid compassion is why people donate blood. It's why my own dear sister, a nurse in Utah, flew to New York City last week to serve the COVID-19 patients in Harlem. It's why white men and women marched with Martin Luther King. It's why Mother Theresa cared for the poorest of the poor. It's why thousands of people around the world volunteer their time to help refugee families navigate a grocery store or learn the local language.
A Call to (Re)Action
Simply recognizing this spectrum of human reaction to the suffering of others is an opportunity to look inside ourselves and ask how we, as an individual, are doing.
Where do I sit on the spectrum? What is my instant emotional reaction when I learn that someone is in pain? What is my first thought? Is it curiosity and fascination or is it empathy and a yearning to do something to heal the harm and alleviate the pain?
We can ask this of ourselves in general. We can observe and assess our reactions in the moment.
If you learn of someone being panned on the Internet, be kind. Refrain from adding a log to the fire. If you know someone is being bullied or abused, report it. Then offer comfort and other aid that you can to the victim. If an ethnicity or nationality or religion or other group are being vilified online, respond. But do so with gentle water and not more fire.
If a pandemic is happening on your earth, donate money or masks or blood or service or at least social distancing. Give what you have.
We cannot give ourselves to every cause under the sun. But we can give some of ourselves to some of them.
You who are reading this, I know you are good. I know you are capable of compassion and of acting on that compassion with kind, caring acts.
Thanks for reading.