My obsession with crime stories started as a young child, watching reruns of the original Law and Order. Part of it may have had to do with the fact that my father was a federal prosecutor based in Washington DC who came home most nights with stories of the “homicide of the week.” Regardless, I have always had the true crime bug. Now, with shows like The Jinx, about the eccentric (and pretty creepy) possible (read: probable) serial killer Robert Durst, and Making a Murderer, about the exoneration and subsequent murder conviction of Steven Avery, it seems that everyone is obsessing over true crime.

Most of these true crime chronicles are centered on one brutal crime in particular: murder. And not just your average murder - we hunger for the most bizarre and gruesome tales. The stories of especially grisly characters such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, the Son of Sam, are the ones we all know by heart. So why are we so interested in such heinous crimes?

Research suggests that the general public’s fascination with serial murder is much like our fascination with car crashes or natural disasters. It’s pure spectacle and drama, and anything outside of the norm of our day to day lives will draw our attention. Another motivation could be that watching or listening to these stories gives us a jolt of adrenaline. Our bodies interpret adrenaline as a sort of reward; we can even become addicted to it. It’s why so many thrill-seekers jump out of planes and balance on tight ropes between mountain tops. What’s an easier and safer way to achieve these highs? You guessed it - true crime.

But perhaps the most powerful reason we’re drawn to true crime is due to one of our most basic and powerful emotions - fear. Watching a TV show or listening to a podcast gives us the opportunity to experience this at once simple and complex emotion in a controlled environment. We can experience all of the excitement and adrenaline that fear gives us, but since it’s in the comfort of our own homes, we don’t experience any of the negativity that inherently comes with it.

Yet another reason we love true crime is that we get to explore the psychology behind the act of murder. No sane person wants to commit mass murder, but by the very nature of being human, our brains are wired at least somewhat similarly to these criminals. So, through watching, we are granted the opportunity to get inside the mind of a murderer. We cannot quite grasp the motivation and conviction of people who commit these violent acts, but we feel compelled to.

An aspect of this true crime fascination that I find particularly interesting is that the majority of the obsessed are women. A 2010 study published by Social Psychological and Personality Science found that the majority of viewers for both true crime and crime fiction were women. Investigation Discovery (ID), a network that runs documentary-style true crime shows 24 hours a day is one of women’s most-watched cable networks on television. The very female-focused Oxygen Network has recently rebranded to focus mainly on true crime programming. The podcast “My Favorite Murder” (my personal favorite), which is hosted by two women and frequently features tips on how women can stay safe, hit the number one spot on iTunes within six months of its premier. Why is this?

The theory that I find most convincing as to why these shows are so popular among women is because they give us a way to ease our anxiety and prepare us for real-life threats. Most true crime that you hear about is perpetrated by men upon women. The vulnerability of that knowledge can often be terrifying, so learning about these crimes teaches us what to do to prevent any violent attacks.

Always lock your doors and windows, don’t walk home alone, don’t leave your drink unattended, etc. Regardless, whether you’re watching true crime to ease your anxiety or pump some adrenaline into your day (or probably a strange combination of both), there is no denying that true crime is here to stay.

References

Bonn, Scott. “The Guilty Pleasure of True Crime TV.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 30 May 2016, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wicked-deeds/201605/the-guilty-pleasure-true-crime-tv.

Marks, Andrea. “How a True-Crime Podcast Became a Mental-Health Support Group.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 Feb. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/02/the-true-crime-podcast-turned-mental-health-support-group/517200/.

“The Psychology Behind America's Crime Obsession.” NPR, NPR, 23 Jan. 2009, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99803591.

Vicary, Amanda M., and R. Chris Fraley. “Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?” Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 81–86., doi:10.1177/1948550609355486.

In 1992, a pair of anthropologists set out to survey 166 of the world’s societies about their particular experience with romantic love. They found that 147 expressed very similar feelings of associated with love (the remaining 19 were not counted because of discrepancies in the questioning, not because there was any negative feedback). Love is a universal human experience—and one for which the scientific community has found many psychological and physiological explanations.

The potent chemical cocktail that you feel when under the influence of romantic love is dominated by dopamine and is associated with certain areas of the brain, including the striatum, also known as the brain’s “pleasure center.” Dopamine release is causes some of the most wonderful feelings of the human experience, like enjoyment, contentment and satisfaction.

Romantic love also activates areas in the brain, primarily the insula, associated with motivation to acquire a reward, gives value to certain pleasurable, life-sustaining human activities. Essentially, the theory is that our brain creates this sense of euphoria (i.e. love) in order to ensure the continuation of our species.

But what about the earliest form of romantic love—the inevasible and indescribable crush. “Crushes,” as we think of them, are often associated with teenagers—and for good reason. The sweaty palms, racing heart and flushed cheeks are symptoms much associated with awkward cafeteria encounters and passed notes in study hall.

Romantic crushes often occur in the early teenage years, and they are an important (though sometimes insufferable) experience to go through. By this time, young people are leaving their childhood years and entering adolescence. They want to act more grown up, and puberty has sent them into a sexual maturity that differentiates them into acting in more manly or womanly ways.

Psychologically speaking, crushes occur when a person of any age projects their ideas and values onto another person whom they believe possesses certain attributes and with whom they want to be associated. Then, the person with the crush attaches strong positive feelings to this magical image that they have created. It is a powerful mixture of idealization and infatuation. The brain chemicals associated with crushes can wreak havoc (or pure bliss, depending on your point of view) on a person for up to two years.

If a powerful crush lasts longer than two years, it may actually be what psychologists call limerence. This condition can be defined as “an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation; obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings and behaviors; and emotional dependence on another person.” Symptoms include uncontrollable thoughts, extreme nervousness and trouble breathing. If you experience any of these symptoms for a prolonged period of time, you should consult a doctor.

But for most of us, crushes don’t evolve into something that needs medical attention, so you don’t need to worry too much. Crushes are a very normal, healthy part of human experience. The next time you fall for someone and think, "I can't get them out of my head!" you have brain chemistry to thank for that!

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks," as the saying goes. But just a few years ago on the popular science show Mythbusters, the literal meaning of the saying was proven wrong. Does that mean it doesn’t apply to humans, either? How did we learn our old tricks, anyway? How do we break them, or better yet, learn new ones all together?

The Habit Loop

According to business writer Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, establishing a habit in the first place relies on a neurological process called a “habit loop." This process has three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward, which Duhigg explained in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air.

The cue is something that tells you the habit is about to begin - something in your environment that indicates it’s time to start the loop. The routine is what we think of when we think of habits - the thing we’re actually doing, such as brushing our teeth before bed, or making coffee in the morning. Finally, the reward is “something that your brain likes that helps it remember the ‘habit loop’ in the future” (NPR).

The article goes on to explain that habits are formed in a different part of the brain (the basal ganglia) than decisions are made (the prefrontal cortex). As a result, once behaviors become habits, we can do them without thinking. Duhigg explains further: "You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all...and that's because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine."

Changing Habits: Good and Bad

Once we’ve formed a habit, however, it’s very difficult to change it - for better or worse. In his article “The Science of Accomplishing Your Goals” for Psychology Today, Dr. Ralph Ryback explains why it is so hard to change our habits, and especially why it’s hard to make those changes stick. “The human brain is wired to favor routine over novelty, even if that routine is unhealthy. For instance, people who were given either stale or fresh popcorn ate the same amount while watching a movie - even though participants admitted that the stale popcorn didn’t taste as good. The participants were so used to the routine of eating popcorn in the theater that the quality of the snack didn't matter” (Ryback).

Because habits and goals/decisions are stored in different places in our brain, changing a behavior into a habit requires that we stick with it consistently. But simply “doing something consistently” can be difficult on its own  - otherwise we wouldn’t have trouble with things such as achieving our new year’s resolutions.

Changes Big and Small

Dr. Ryback and many others recommend changes both big and small to help make habits stick. Big changes like a new job, moving or switching schools can help shake up your routine and give you new cues for your habit loop to follow. For instance, if you are trying to quit smoking, then quitting while on vacation is more likely to end in success than trying while surrounded by all your same cues or triggers (NPR).

On the other end of the “change” spectrum, small shifts can also be very helpful. Breaking a goal down into small pieces and getting specific with what you want to achieve both increase the likelihood that you’ll change your behavior into a habit.

Breaking the goal into smaller pieces means you’ll benefit from the “reward” section of the habit loop more frequently. These successes give your brain a boost of dopamine, also known as the happiness chemical (Ryback). If you want to declutter your home, breaking the task into smaller projects such as “declutter all drawers in kitchen” or “empty out linen closet” is a much more achievable chunk of the project than waiting for the reward at the end of cleaning out your whole house. Working on small pieces at a time also assures that you will obtain that consistency that helps your brain consider your actions a habit rather than a behavior. Working towards the goal in small pieces each day makes it more likely that you will continue with the habit even after your initial goal is reached.

Similarly, setting specific goals rather than vague, overwhelming ones leads to success more often. In his article “Specific Commitments Can Change Behavior," Art Markman references several studies that show the results of this idea.

“Research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues demonstrates that it is valuable for people to commit to specific behaviors rather than general ones.  In addition, research on the escalation of commitment suggests that getting people to take a small step toward a goal can get them to take larger steps later” (Markman).

By this logic, if you want to knock more items off your “to be read” list, you should set a small, manageable goal instead of “reading more”. For instance, starting off with a book a month would be a great way to begin. If you find that you are reading faster than that, perhaps bump yourself up to two books a month. When I started working on a similar goal, I found that I began making more time for reading in my daily routine. I also made reading more convenient for myself - storing a book in my bedside table, and downloading audiobooks for my commute, which made reading much easier.

As it turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks. You can also train bad habits out of them, with a lot of commitment and consistency. Using some knowledge of how our brains form habits in the first place, you can even change habits of your own.

References

Duhigg, Charles. The Power Of Habit. N.p.: Random House USA, 2014. Print.

Gross, Terry. "Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them." NPR. Fresh Air, 05 Mar. 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Hyneman, Jamie, Adam Savage, and Chris Williams. "Mythbusters/Dog Myths." Mythbusters. Discovery. San Francisco, California, 14 Mar. 2007. Television.

M.D., Ralph Ryback. "The Science of Accomplishing Your Goals." Psychology Today. N.p., 6 Oct. 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Ph.D., Art Markman. "Specific Commitments Can Change Behavior." Psychology Today. N.p., 26 July 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

What driving force could be so powerful that it could transform a serene group of individuals into a potentially violent mob? What could sway the minds of half a stadium, based on the influence of only a handful of people?

It’s the same thing that motivates a person to share an impassioned social media post in knee-jerk response to societal standards. It’s a yield to “perceived group pressures” by publicly expressing whatever sentiment is in agreement with the norm. It’s so easy to do that most of us aren’t even aware when we are doing it!

Humans have a predilection to imitate one another’s behavior. We end up professing beliefs and acting out in ways which we would have never otherwise done or considered independently.  Psychologists refer to this occurrence as mob mentality. That’s why, for instance, it feels natural – and even pleasurable – to pass along gossip and counterintuitive to stop it.

Still, it could get channeled in positive ways, too.

Mob mentality, also called as herd mentality, describes how humans adopt behaviors, buy merchandise, and follow trends based on their circle of influence.  It explains how one’s point of view can be easily altered by those around them.

Mob mentality psychology can impact pop culture, political ideals, and even stock market behavior.  The origin of superstition lies in mob mentality psychology, as well.  Social psychologists have been studying all relevant topics relating to mob mentality and surmised that there are three psychological theories to crowd behavior: Contagion Theory, Convergence Theory, and Emergent-Norm Theory.

1. Contagion Theory (Crowd Frenzy)

Crowds easily become uncontrolled, wild, and frenzied. In this state, they can exert a hypnotic impact that results in unreasonable and emotionally charged behavior among the members. For example, with mob mentality, superstitions can evolve from a misconception or rumor between a small group of people and escalate quickly.

2. Convergence Theory

In this theory, like-minded individuals come together by focusing on a limited number of choices as possibilities, then choosing the “correct” answer from said choices. Another example could be a peaceful protest. Violence doesn’t have to be an emergent feature, but is a result if the people wanted it to be and came together in a crowd to make it so.

3. Emergent-Norm Theory (and The Anonymity of The Internet)

In this mentality, a combination of like-minded individuals share anonymity and emotions which lead to overall group behavior. The anonymity of the internet allows people the freedom of yielding to mob mentality and those messages exchanged via social media, as they are able to let go of the social restraints that would otherwise hinder them in a face-to-face setting.

Other examples of “mob mentality:”

Sporting Events

Large sporting events are an excellent mob mentality psychology example. Because they have been grouped in a crowd or large arena, many sports fans would take on collective moods and actions of the assembly.  Conditions like extreme weather or alcohol can enhance mob mentality.  Have you ever seen fans charge a field on an especially hot day?  Or get especially riled up over a close call made by an official when a few too many drinks were consumed?

The Salem Witch Trials

Perhaps one of the most enduring examples of mob mentality is that of The Salem Witch Trials, wherein an entire population came to believe that completely innocent victims were witches possessed by the devil.  They arrived at this conclusion without any physical or rational evidence.  There was simply a snowball effect once one person claimed to see the devil, claimed a conspiracy of witches, and then accused another woman of being a witch.  Widespread panic ensued.  Women were lynched one right after the other without a fair or reasonable trial because, by that point, those making the determination were incapable of fair reasoning.  They had already been entirely swayed by mob mentality.

References

Donley, Megan.  “Examining The Mob Mentality.”  South Source, South University. 14 Jan. 2011.  20 Feb. 2017.  http://source.southuniversity.edu/examining-the-mob-mentality-31395.aspx

James, Wendy, Ph.D. “The Psychology of Mob Mentality and Violence.”  Life Consultants, Inc.  (2013).   20 Feb. 2017.  http://www.drwendyjames.com/the-psychology-of-mob-mentality-and-violence/

McLeod, S. A. “Obedience to Authority.” Simply Psychology, (2007). 20 Feb. 2017.  www.simplypsychology.org/obedience.html

McLeod, S. A. “What is Conformity?” Simply Psychology, (2016).  20 Feb. 2017. www.simplypsychology.org/conformity.html

“The Salem Witch Trials, 1692.” Eyewitness To History. 22 Feb. 2017 http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/salem.htm

If you are interested in meeting with a behavioral health care provider to support mental health and wellness, try online videoconferencing through Inpathy

“Get outside of your comfort zone!” is an instruction each and every one of us have heard from motivational speakers and parents alike throughout our entire lives. What they mean is, try something new! But what does it actually mean to break outside of one’s comfort zone, and what are the benefits of doing so?

We all have a comfort zone—a place that feels safe and familiar. For me, it was working in a non-profit setting in a city I’d called home for the entirety of my adult life, Washington D.C. Being surrounded by friends and loved ones and working in a professional field in which I felt secure was incredibly cozy, but I gradually began to feel stagnant. Everything was easy, and I just wasn’t growing. Fast forward a year and a half and I’m working my first for-profit job in Chicago, IL. What a change!

A comfort zone can be described as “a psychological state in which things feel familiar to a person and they are at ease and in control of their environment, experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress.” Therefore, it can be assumed that stepping out of one’s comfort zone will raise anxiety and generate stress to a certain extent. Why would we want to do that?!

Many psychologists and social scientists believe that leaving your zone of comfort can enhance levels of focus and concentration. Alasdair White, the man who coined the term “comfort zone,” hypothesized that to achieve high performance, one has to experience a certain amount of stress.

Psychiatrist Dr. Abigail Brenner, author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life, outlines her top 5 reasons to begin stepping outside your comfort zone as follows:

  1. Your “real life” is the conglomeration of all of your life’s experiences, not just the ones you’re comfortable with. Experiencing your “real life” in its totality is important to becoming a better-rounded person.
  2. Pushing yourself to do uncomfortable things releases your “personal store of untapped knowledge and resources.” You don’t know what you actually know and how strong you actually are until you’re challenged.
  3. Risks are growth experiences, no matter the outcome. In Dr. Brenner’s estimation, FAIL can mean “first attempt in learning.”
  4. Settling for mediocrity is an incredibly high price to pay for the feeling of relative safety. Letting your comfort dictate your experience is no way to live.
  5. Stepping outside of your comfort zone helps you learn how to deal with change, thereby expanding your comfort zone!

Over a century ago, in 1907, noted psychologist Robert Yerkes told of a behavioral space in which, in order to maximize performance, humans must reach stress levels that are slightly higher than normal. He called this space “Optimal Anxiety” and it’s just outside of our zone of comfort.

However, as we all learned in ninth grade psychology, the feeling of safety is second only to physiological requirements in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There’s a reason most humans want to stay in an area of relative comfort and safety—it keeps us alive. The same Robert Yerkes that presented the idea of “Optimal Anxiety” reported that, “anxiety improves performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached. Beyond that point, performance deteriorates as higher levels of anxiety are attained.”

So how do we find the perfect balance between this passive state of seeking comfort and active state of seeking growth? How do we find this “Optimal Anxiety”? Alan Henry, editor-in-chief of Life Hacker, suggests the following:

  1. Do everyday things differently. Take a different route to work. Try a new restaurant without checking Yelp first. Go vegetarian for a week, or a month…Look for the perspective that comes from any change, even if it’s negative. Don’t be put off if things don’t work out the way you planned.
  2. Take your time making decisions. Sometimes slowing down is all it takes to make you uncomfortable—especially if speed and quick thinking are prized in your work or personal life.
  3. Trust yourself and make snap decisions. We’re contradicting ourselves, but there’s a good reason… Sometimes making a snap call is in order, just to get things moving.
  4. Do it in small steps. It takes a lot of courage to break out of your comfort zone. You get the same benefits whether you go in with both feet as you do if you start slow, so don’t be afraid to start slow.

His last suggestion rings particularly true to me. We are creatures of habit, and we love our comfort. In order not stress yourself out too much, therefore inching out of that “optimal anxiety” level, don’t be so hard on yourself! Growth is growth.

If you are interested in meeting with a behavioral health care provider to support mental health and wellness, try online videoconferencing through Inpathy

References

Beck, Melinda. “Anxiety Can Bring Out the Best.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 18 June 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.

Brenner, Abbigail. “5 Benefits of Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone.” Psychology Today. N.p., 27 Dec. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.

Henry, Alan. “The Science of Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone (and Why You Should).” Lifehacker. Lifehacker.com, 03 July 2013. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.

White, Alasdair. From Comfort Zone to Performance Management. N.p.: White & MacLean, 2009. Print.

Yerkes, R & Dodson, J. – “The Dancing Mouse, A Study in Animal Behavior” 1907 “Journal of Comparative Neurology & Psychology”, Number 18, pp 459–482

If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a free, 24-hour hotline at 1.800.273.8255. If your issue is an emergency, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.