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Why?

The surprising reason you can’t look away from disasters

Why do people slow down to look at the aftermath of a traffic accident on the highway? We all know we shouldn’t do it, and yet all of us — yes, even you — do it every damn time. Why?

Surprisingly, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that explains how and why this happens. Psychologists like to call it the Pandora Effect. And no, that doesn’t refer to the jewellery company of the same name, or to the planet in Avatar — it’s actually an allusion to the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box.

The basic idea is this: when humans have a choice between avoiding harm and checking out something interesting, they will often choose to check out the interesting thing, even if it means they will be harmed as a result. We just can’t leave it alone, it seems.

To study this, psychologists analysed the ways that people respond to situations designed to show up this effect. For example, it turns out if you give someone a bunch of pens, some of which will give them an electric shock if they press the button on the end, the likelihood that they’ll actually press the button depends strongly on whether they have a way of knowing which pens will shock and which will not.

You can probably guess the results of this study: when people were given a batch of pens which had the shockers clearly marked, they didn’t bother pressing the buttons. But when given a batch where each pen might be a shocker, the subjects of the study just had to click every pen to find out whether they would be shocked or not

Table of figures showing the statistics behind people's choices.

But why? It would be reasonable to expect that in those situations of uncertainty, people would refuse to click any of the pens, thereby completely avoiding the risk of an unwanted shock. But that’s not what people do. And this is what’s called the Pandora Effect.

The researchers summarised this as a link between curiosity and ignorance: “when facing something uncertain and feeling curious, they will act to resolve the uncertainty even if they expect negative consequences. This research reveals the potential perverse side of curiosity, and is particularly relevant to the current epoch…of information,”

So the next time you’re driving along the highway and there’s an accident at the side of the road, and you slow down to get a good look, even though you know that doing so is dangerous, illegal, and inconvenient for everyone behind you, remember the Pandora Effect: you’re basically just clicking one pen after the other, willingly getting shocked for the sake of a little bit of extra information about the world.

By the way, if you’re at work right now — was it the Pandora Effect that led you to click on this article?

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