The Psychology of Rubbernecking

What did research say?

Alexandra Davis
May 24, 2019 · 3 min read

Rubbernecking refers to the behavior that people often stare at something of interest. Drivers often engage in it by staring at an accident on the side of the road and get into an accident themselves. I have had close calls even when I tell myself, “don’t look, don’t look”. It happens to the best of us, right?

We all know the danger of rubbernecking on the highway. Why do we still do it? Some believed Carl Jung has the right answer:

We like to witness violence precisely because it, the watching, allows us to entertain our most destructive impulses without actually harming ourselves or others.

That sounds pretty dark and hopeless but is it true?

Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

Theories from Jung and Freud’s psychoanalysis is famous for its lack of scientific evidence. Cognitive psychology, on the other hand, provides a different and more probable explanation — attentional blink.

Attentional blink refers to the phenomenon when people shift their attention from one thing to another, there is about half a second of gap when we don’t notice either. Research has found that people are prone to allocate their attention to emotional information even when it is not related to the task at hand. It makes sense from an evolution point of view. We pay attention to danger and accidents happened to others so to prevent it from happening to ourselves, right?

On the contrary, paying attention to emotionally salient event on the side of the road could get ourselves in an accident, like the video above. Why do we keep doing it?

Researchers believe the aversiveness of the distractor and the intensity of the emotional arousal of the distractor are key to our rubbernecking.

Aversiveness — the worse the accident on the side of the road, the easier for us to get distracted. A little stalled car with hazard lights on won’t cause too much trouble, but multiple cars rear end each other with polices and ambulances around will almost certainly distract the best of us.

The intensity of the emotional arousal the more intense one feels about the accident on the side of the road, the easier they will get distracted and harder for them to disengage the staring. That means if you had a similar accident as the distractor on the road, it is more likely for you to stare at it. Shared past experience makes us more empathetic. The more intense the emotion is, the harder for our brain, specifically the orbital frontal cortex, to inhibit the behavior.

The research in this area is limited but it looks like controlling our emotions is the first step and raising awareness and understanding of why we do what we do is the key to control our emotions.

Clap and Share if you like to read more research-based stories without reading boring research papers ;)



Everything psychology, psychology is in everything

Alexandra Davis

Written by

A doctoral student in Clinical Psychology. I write about everything related to psychology.



Everything psychology, psychology is in everything

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