Why are we so obsessed with true crime?

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We’ve teamed up with the folks behind BBC World Service’s CrowdScience to answer your questions on one topic - this week it's all about why we are obsessed with true crime

Crime stories seem more popular than ever. Bookshop shelves and TV schedules are heaving with murder mysteries and whodunnits. And the ‘true crime’ genre has been given a new lease of life in recent years, with smash-hit documentaries such as Making A Murderer, The Jinx and The Keepers. The podcast Serial – season one of which investigated a real-life murder – has attracted hundreds of millions of downloads.

Why are we so obsessed with true crime? © Getty Images
Adnan Syed was imprisoned for the murder of Hae Min Lee, but has always claimed he's innocent. The case was the subject of the first series of the popular podcast Serial

Evolutionary psychologists say that we’re drawn to these tales because murder, rape and theft have played a significant part in human society since our hunter-gatherer days. It’s in our nature to be highly attuned to criminal misdemeanours, and we instinctively want to discover the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ so we can find out what makes criminals tick, and to better protect ourselves and our kin.

A 2010 study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that women tend to be drawn towards true crime stories more than men, and that they are most interested in stories that give insight into the killer’s motives, that contain information about how victims escaped, and that feature female victims. So this fits with the evolutionary idea – that people are instinctively drawn towards stories where they can identify with the victim and read about tips and strategies for defeating the ‘baddies’.

Of course, there are other reasons for why we’re drawn to true crime: there’s a problem-solving element to many of the cases, for example, and there’s the satisfaction of getting lost in a really good story.

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