Health

Morbid curiosity: Why we can't look away from tragic images

July 18, 2014 at 7:54 PM ET

A man searches through wreckage at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP - Getty Images
A man searches through wreckage at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

With all the media coverage of the back-to-back tragedies this week of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash and the conflicts on the Gaza strip, we have been inundated with graphic photos of dead bodies. And like passing a car accident on the road, many of us can’t help but look, no matter how gruesome the scene is. We asked TODAY contributor and psychiatrist Gail Saltz to explain what is behind this morbid curiosity.

Because there were so many journalists and photographers at the Malaysia crash site, many graphic photos of the passengers and crash area are being published. We’ve also seen horrific photos of the Palestinian boys killed on the beach. Why can’t we look away?

Saltz: It makes us feel better to say we "can’t look away," but really it’s that we don’t want to look away. It’s normal sadomasochistic urges and fantasies that everyone has a certain degree of — the desire to think about or imagine hurting or being hurt — combined with normal exhibitionist and voyeuristic feelings, the interest in what is hidden and secret. It’s the weaving of both of these sides, which is as old as time. It’s no different then the Romans and gladiators and feeding them to the lions and everyone watching in the Colosseum.

Why do we do it when we feel so bad after looking?

Saltz: The bad feeling, of course, is the identification with these lives. You can’t help but imagine if it were you or your mother or brother. That’s normal, too, and that it makes you feel sad. But it’s sort of like the enjoyment, for some people, of seeing a horror movie. It’s the thrill of the risk. People like to be terrorized in the movies but they are sitting there in a movie theater, so it’s not really happening to them. Some people crave that adrenaline rush and a heightened emotional state — it makes them feel very alive, even if they are bad feelings.

Is there any psychological benefit to see the grim images? For example, is it good to see it so that we know the story is real?

Saltz: I don’t think you need to see a lot of it to know the story is real.

Does it increase our empathy for the victims or desensitize us?

Saltz: I think some of both. It depends on the person. I’m personally concerned about a tremendous amount of desensitizing going on. In an effort to grab your eye, people are going further and further out to get more graphic images. There are some people who are more sensitive — they are going to empathize. But not everyone.

Video: Noah Sneider, a journalist at the Malaysia Airlines flight crash scene, talks about walking through the wreckage, calling it a “humanizing experience,” and discusses speculation about who could be behind the attack.

Is there a certain kind of person who is better off reading about it without seeing the images?

Saltz: Yes, there are people who are hard-wired to anxiety. And a subgroup of those people tend to have anxious thoughts present in a visual way. They don’t just think it, they actually visualize. Those people really are going to have trouble seeing these images. They will lock onto it and it’s hard for them to get rid of. They are better off not exposing themselves. And children, especially anxious children — exposing them to visual trauma is not great for them.

Is there a point where repeated viewing is bad or numbing? How do we know when we’ve reached that point?

Saltz: I don’t think there is anything psychologically good about constant consumption of a violent news event. It’s not particularly good for anyone. You are not gaining any more knowledge. It’s good to be informed so that you may make different choices, so that you know what’s going on in the world. But neither is served by watching hours of the same story, and many people do. All that does is stir everybody’s panic. It feeds into the compulsion to keep finding out, to keep looking, to keep being the voyeur, even though you are safe in your living room. It’s just not particularly healthy to be in a constant state of alert or alarm.

Dr. Gail Saltz is on Twitter @drgailsaltz.

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