Why do we stop to stare? We can’t help it, it’s instinct

This was a story I wrote orginally published in the Montreal Gazette on February 4, 2012

Why do we stop to stare? We can’t help it, it’s instinct
On a recent walk near the Highway 15 I spotted a nasty accident between a semi-truck and a car. My first instinct was to grab my camera and snap a few shots. I wasn’t the only one having a look, cars in the adjacent lane slowed as drivers craned their necks to witness the mayhem. The rubbernecking formed a traffic jam, just in time for another Montreal rush hour.

“If we see that others are failing we sense that we aren’t so badly off,” said Alexandre Enkerly, part time faculty member of Concordia’s sociology and anthropology department. “The comparison helps us appreciate our own situation.”

Rubbernecking is a group activity; often people who wouldn’t normally look partake just because everyone else has.

“The behaviour of a crowd is very different from the behaviour of an individual. When you get to the front and you can look you do because other people have been too,” said Enkerly.
Rubbernecking isn’t just a social phenomenon, but one built into our very instincts. Doug Crawford is a Canada Research Chair in the field of visual-motor neuroscience and says that rubbernecking is simply human nature. “It really taps into the primitive reflexes that we share with animals. There’s a strong signal telling us to look at the distraction because it could be important to our safety,” he explained.

A lapse of attention caused by observing other people’s accidents puts us at risk of getting into our own crash. A 2003 study by Virginia Commonwealth University showed rubbernecking as a leading cause of distracted driving accidents.

The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) lists rubbernecking as one of the top five causes of car accidents, even ahead of drinking and driving.

It is possible to suppress the urge to look said Crawford. “We tell ourselves, we’re not going to look. As we get closer we feel that curiosity and sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. It’s just that balance between what we intend to do and what those primitive parts of the brain are telling us to do.”

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