The Psychology Behind America's Crime Obsession Americans have an uneasy fascination with crime. For more on the psychology behind the culture's interest in unsolved murder mysteries, Tony Cox speaks with clinical and corporate psychologist Michael Mantell.

The Psychology Behind America's Crime Obsession

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TONY COX, host:

So, we've looked at the history of unsolved crimes, but why are we so fascinated by it all? We turn now to Michael Mantell. He is a clinical and corporate psychologist and served as the chief psychologist for the San Diego Police Department for 10 years. Michael, welcome to News & Notes.

Dr. MICHAEL MANTELL (Clinical and Corporate Psychologist; Former Chief Psychologist, San Diego Police Department): Good to be with you.

COX: So, let's talk about this fascination with crime and murder mysteries. That's not necessarily a modern thing either, is it?

Dr. MANTELL: No, of course not. I think that we have been fascinated with the conflict between good and evil since the beginning of time. Soon after the world was created, we see a conflict between two brothers, Cain and Abel. I think that there has always been this deep, deep fascination with good and evil. Since, the '50s, we have been bombarded really in the media with accounts of crime stories and it probably came to real fruition in the '70s and it's taken off since then. So, you know, our fascination with crime is equaled by our fear of crime. It's two sides of the same story actually.

COX: You know, when you think about some of the, you know, crime novels and, you know, the pulp fiction that you see people reading, and I read it also because I'm fascinated by it, what does that say about, you know, about us?

Dr. MANTELL: Well, I think it says that we're normal and we're healthy...

COX: Oh that's good.

Dr. MANTELL: And these are psychologically fine interests. The fact is I think our interest in crime serves a number of different healthy psychological purposes. But first, is the sense of not me. This feeling of I'm interested but I'm interested because it calms me. That it's - I'm not the victim. He, she, they are the victim. And that's - I think that's a very important element to understand.

COX: Is this sort of a voyeurism?

Dr. MANTELL: It's definitely psychological voyeurism.

COX: Really. Are there certain kinds - is there a line perhaps that when you - that you should cross or you should not cross with in terms of what is appropriate crime to be interested in. I mean, there's brutal crime and then there's, you know, there's simple murders, with not too bloody, there's poisoning, there's stabbing, there's drowning. And then there's, you know, hacking into a thousand and pieces and eating the people that you kill. Where do you draw the line over what's appropriate and what's not?

Dr. MANTELL: That's a great question. I think it's not the crime content. Let's face it. The media understands if it bleeds it leads. And probably 25 to 30 percent of most television news today is it deals with crime particularly personal crime and murder. Violent predatory crimes against people go to the top of the list. And as your previous guest said, there seems to be still an over representation of white female victims in TV news. I think that it's not the content to get back to your question. It's how obsessed you are? If all you do is read about crime and all you do - regardless of the nature of crime and - all you do is talk about it and you have posters of it, and you have newspaper article clippings in your desk drawer, I'd be concerned. I'll be concerned about working with those people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Absolutely. Listen, let me ask you to hold on, Michael. We're going to take a quick break and we're going to come back and continue this very interesting conversation in just a couple of moments. Stand by.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: I'm Toni Cox and this is News & Notes. We're back now talking about the fascination that we all have with crime and we're talking about that with Michael Mantell. He is a clinical and corporate psychologist. Before the break Michael, you were talking about how much will you indulge in a crime and it reminded me during my days as a court house crime reporter, and I've covered cases all over the country, I used to run into Anne Rice, the crime novelist all the time in the court room, watching these crimes unfold and she wrote some books and some of them turned into movies. My question is, talk a little bit more about how much we should be concerned or how careful we need to be about how much we indulge ourselves in these crime stories and novels?

Dr. MANTELL: Well, I think it can become overwhelming, I think it can take a life of its own. I think especially for young children, teenagers, who are immersed in reading about crime, talking about crimes, play acting out crimes, it has a double-edge sword in a sense. On the one hand, I think you can sink kids into that and they can't come out of it. On the other, there's an element of rehearsing anxiety. When we read about crime, we're thinking about how would we handle if we were victim? And there's a catharsis that is actually healthy. So, it's hard to draw the specific line as where is too much but if it's taking out more than half of your day and it's interfering with your work or school, that's too much. This catharsis element of listening to news stories about crime, it's reasonable and healthy. Remember, what Americans want is a tragedy with a happy ending. We want to see the closure. If I say to you, damp-da-da-damp-dump, you have to say.

COX: Dump. dump.

Dr. MANTELL: Dump-dump. You cannot...

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Yeah. That's true.

Dr. MANTELL: We want to see the crime, the conflict, but we want to see the resolution.

COX: Now, you mentioned play acting. Is there any evidence to show that there's an interesting crime stories that can lead to some people to actually, you know, commit crimes like copycat?

Dr. MANTELL: Well, of course. And this is a concern. I wrote a book on violence in a workplace a number of years ago. And whenever, we see an act of violence in the workplace, there's always going to be a copycat somewhere in the country. Let me just quickly say this though. We saw in the inauguration of our new president, Obama, an amazingly hopeful thing. More than a million people, I don't remember the exact number, stood together and there wasn't one arrest.

COX: That's right.

Dr. MANTELL: Now, that is an amazing thing. Nowhere in America does that take place except there. So, we have to be thinking that his words choose hope over fear demonstrated with more than a million people staying together and no crime being committed, you know, is a story for the future of hopefulness. But I think that speaks to another element of why we're fascinated with crime, Tony, and that's the sense of compassion. Either you believe people are good or believe people are bad, I believe people are good. But I think that one reason that we are interested in crime is because it allows us to feel our compassion, not only a compassion for the victim but sometimes compassions for the perpetrator.

COX: Well, let me ask you this as we have to bring our conversation to a close. Is there that the danger that we are becoming desensitized to crime? Because it's - we see it on the streets for real on the news for real and then we read about it and go to the movies and watch it?

Dr. MANTELL: No, I don't think so. Crime and conflict is an aspect to the human condition that's been with us from the beginning. It will always be with us. I don't think we're anymore desensitized. I think our interest is always there and will always be there.

COX: Last thing is this. Do you find a difference gender wise in terms of the interest that we had in either victims or perpetrators of crime? And I know I only have unfortunately 30 seconds for you to respond.

Dr. MANTELL: The quick answer is I do not believe there's a difference in gender. I think that the kinds of crimes that men are interested in maybe different than the kinds of crimes women are and the way we expressed our interest but we're always have our ears, you know, bent towards the news. Our eyes are looking at it. I think it's the same for men and women.

COX: This is a fascinating topic and I really appreciate Michael, your coming on. Thank you so much.

Dr. MANTELL: Thank you very much.

COX: That was Michael Mantell. He is a clinical and corporate psychologist who served as the chief psychologist for the San Diego Police Department for 10 years.

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