True crime is a popular genre of podcasts, but why? Does everyone just love murder and serial killers (don’t answer that)? We dive into the science and drivers propelling the popularity of true crime as a category.
According to Scott Bonn, professor of criminology at Drew University and author of the book, Why We Love Serial Killers, true crime “triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us—fear.” This is the primary driver of the popularity of true crime novels, television shows, and podcasts. People look at true crime as a way to face their fears without actually experiencing the danger or trauma associated with them. This controlled exposure to fear is a way to face the possibility of crime and subconsciously develop strategies and coping mechanisms to handle it in the event a similar situation comes to pass.
In a study conducted by social psychologist Amanda Vicary, it was found that women tend to prefer true crime topics more than men. As an example, the Wine and Crime podcast, which gets 500,000 downloads per month, has an audience of 85% women. What Vicary discovered in her research of a variety of true crime books, podcasts, and television shows is that women tend to be drawn to the psychological content of true crime stories. They are interested in understanding why such a crime would be committed. In addition, Vicary found that women seem to “like reading about survival, whether it was preventing or surviving a crime.” Her hypothesis is that because women are more likely to be a victim of crime than men, they are interested in using true crime stories to learn how to prevent it.
Dr. Mayer further explained this phenomenon as he connected watching true crime as an extension of people’s inability to look away from a disaster or tragedy. His research indicates that when people become aware of a violent situation or disaster, it “stimulates the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions, survival tactics and memory). The amygdala then sends signals to the regions of the frontal cortex that are involved in analyzing and interpreting data. Next, the brain evaluates whether this data (awareness of the disaster) is a threat…, thus judgment gets involved. As a result, the ‘fight or flight’ response is evoked.” Mayer states that the need to prevent harm from a disaster or tragedy is also behind people’s need to “Google what happened” after hearing about or seeing an accident on the highway. He said, “This acts as a preventive mechanism to give us information on the dangers to avoid and to flee from.”