Why are we so captivated by car crashes?

Recently, Chinese authorities created a horribly graphic accident compilation video from surveillance cameras to encourage safe driving. Over 12 million Chinese watched it online. Now it's making the rounds here. Why are people so obsessed with car crashes?

WARNING, graphic video below.

People love watching car crash videos, especially ones where we're assured no one is seriously hurt. But this Chinese crash video? Like others before it, they seem to attract more attention when there's some pain involved. And in the case of this graphic video, there's a lot of pain to go around — it's basically a snuff film. So why does this particular video engender so many viewers?

On the surface there's the concept of morbid curiosity. In fact, it's become a common phrase when describing something so awful you can't look away from it as being "like a car accident."

According to Roland Maiuro, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington, we tend to look at car accidents because "The accident provides a close encounter without yourself being directly involved being put at risk."

This "close encounter" with the risk of a crash also removes from the viewer some level of fear, because inevitably it becomes mundane. As Mikita Brottman explains in her book Car Crash Culture:

To sit through a series of violent car crashes [on film], one after another after another, is a way of integrating the trauma into a psychic economy, thereby attaining some level of mastery over it. In other words, repetition of the trauma produces two conflicting attitudes toward death: that which acknowledges it as traumatic and that which denies its power to harm. . . . Accidents repeated over and over again stop looking like accidents and start to seem repetitive, automatic, deliberate, and technological.

And for some, there's the Crash factor. In David Cronenberg's film adaption of a novel on the theme, people literally get off on watching car wrecks. One of the characters in the film conveys a similar reasoning as above by saying "After being bombarded endlessly by road safety propaganda, it's almost a relief to have found myself in an actual accident."

Why are we so captivated by car crashes?

In a paper on our fascination with crashes both economic and vehicular, the researchers equate driving with gambling (PDF) and say the joy is greater because of the risk.

"Some gamble and drive for the excitement, which is enhanced by risk of a crash. Some gamble and drive for the oblivion, which can be no greater than in a crash."

If you extrapolate this out, then, watching car crashes makes driving more exciting because we're somehow more aware of the risk but, simultaneously, less attached to the actual consequences of one and desensitized to their existence. Although that sounds sort of like the arguments often made by family values organizations against violent video games. Is that the only reason we watch?

The reasons for why these videos are appealing may get deeper into the psychology of how we perceive harm and fairness. A 2006 study pitting players against each other in a game where one player was acting fairly and the other wasn't provides some insight into this. Brain imaging showed that when the fair player was rewarded it excited positive feelings in others. When the person acting unfairly was punished, it also excited positive feelings, leading the researchers to conclude "humans derive satisfaction simply from seeing justice administered, even if the punishment is out of their control."

This is supported by the Chinese example. The reason why most of these accidents are filmed and shown by authorities is that they're almost always examples of someone not driving correctly. And the comments on this particular accident video on the video site Yoku, as translated by China Smack, show exactly that same preoccupation with justice and fairness.

Those people are so unobservant of traffic rules. Intensely demand that China's traffic department modify the laws so that those who don't obey the rules like running red light and therefore cause accidents resulting in injuries and deaths should not only die but also pay fines and losses.

There are numerous other comments like that, which ignore the human cost and focus on the justice.

Let's put this to the test. If you watched the video, tell us in the comments below why you did it. Is it already merely a repetitive distraction? Does it make driving more thrilling for you? Are you happy to see the people punished? Is it merely schadenfreude, or are you James Spader?