• Science
  • Psychology

Alex Murdaugh and the Evolutionary Reason We’re Drawn to Violent Crime

6 minute read

If you haven’t heard the name Alex Murdaugh over the course of the past few months, you may just not have been paying attention. The disgraced South Carolina attorney was convicted yesterday of the murder of his wife and son, following a six-week trial that was must-watch TV for much of the nation. Cable news carried Murdaugh’s testimony live and uninterrupted as it unfolded. In its near obsessional public following, the case was in many ways reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which saw 150 million Americans tune in to learn the verdict on Octal. 3, 1995.

But why? What is it about sensational—and often sensationally gruesome—murder trials that fascinates us so? Are humans as a whole and Americans in particular simply morbid, simply voyeurs? Or is there something more complex going on? There is an answer, and it turns out to be equal parts evolution, self-protection and, in some measure, the media attention that cases like Murdaugh’s regularly draw.

Like other animals, we humans are acutely aware of and alert to threats in our environment. The world is a dangerous place and, especially for a soft, slow, unfanged, unclawed—and thus easy to kill—species like ours, it pays to be exceedingly alert to dangers.

“Humans, broadly, are built to be intrigued by and alert to potentially dangerous situations,” says psychologist Coltan Scrivner, research scientist at Aarhus University in Denmark. “We’re curious about threats in our environment. So anytime we get a hint that there might be information about danger out there, the attention mechanisms in our minds sort of kick on and guide us toward that information.”

That danger, of course, could be a lion or a tiger or a hurricane or a wildfire. But the danger another human—like a Murdaugh—poses captures a particular part of our focus.

“Humans are very good at being sneaky,” says Scrivner. “We’re very good at being premeditated in our violence and in our approach to hurting others, whereas other animals tend to be reactive. If you make an animal angry, they react right away. If you make a human angry, they can go home and conspire or plot against you. And so if we get a hint of secrecy or planning or anything like that, that also tends to capture our attention.”

Just who does the killing also plays a role in our fascination with cases like Murdaugh’s. There were more than 26,000 homicides in the U.S. in 2021, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that hardly meant there were 26,000 investigations or trials that drew the kind of attention Murdaugh’s did. What those other cases lacked was celebrity. Murdaugh has been widely described as the wealthy scion of a prestigious South Carolina family. Simpson was a Hall of Fame football player and movie star. That makes a difference.

“There’s an element of status involved in all of that,” says Scrivner. “And we again have attention mechanisms in our minds that are particularly tuned to that. If a high-status individual is doing something we tend to pay attention, because they’re a person who not only has the desire to do something bad or conspiratorial or threatening, but also the ability to carry it out.”

Joni Johnstone, a San Diego-based forensic psychologist, notes that there is also an element of schadenfreude at play in the Murdaugh case: “You have a family that has a long legacy of wealth and power and I think a lot of people are interested in seeing justice done. It ties into the sense that the rich get away with whatever they want, while the poor get charged for things they didn’t do.”

Then there is the gruesomeness of this particular crime. Much was made at trial of the horrific effect Murdaugh’s shotgun had on the bodies of his wife and son—similar to the primacy given to the slashings sustained by the victims in the Simpson trial. It is more than morbidness that causes us to be so fascinated by such gory details. It is, again, evolution and self-protection.

“I wrote a paper on this a few years ago,” reports Scrivner. “What we found was that when people heard of a crime where the perpetrator behaved in a gruesome way, they perceived or envisioned the perpetrator to be particularly big and large and strong.” Big and large and strong is a person you especially want to avoid and it pays survival dividends to attend closely to such a menace. “It’s tapping into a very old system in the mammalian brain for mapping strength,” Scrivner says. “We expect larger, stronger individuals to be more capable and more dangerous.”

Then too, there is the role of the media. Newspapers, websites, magazines and cable news programmers are no fools, and they recognize a target-rich story when they see one. Johnston sees a sort of self-reinforcing cycle in the public’s natural fascination with a case like Murdaugh’s, giving rise to saturation coverage that satisfies that interest, which, in turn, draws still more eyeballs. “The media is both a driver of our attention and reflects our interest,” she says. “We’ve been able to basically be inside the courtroom from day one. If they didn’t think we were going to be interested in that, they wouldn’t be broadcasting. So it becomes a kind of a circle.”

Scrivner thinks this kind of coverage has a lasting impact on our view of crime—and not for the better. “Excessive coverage of true crime cases by the media could signal to the minds of viewers that the frequency of rare crimes is higher than it really is,” he says, “which could make them more likely to seek out information about true crime cases. This probably isn’t an issue in many cases, but does skew the perception of how likely these kinds of crimes are.”

For the media and the public, attention will now be focused elsewhere. Murdaugh himself will be going nowhere—sentenced this morning to life without the possibility of parole. As for his wife and son, the silent centers of this terrible story, we can only offer thoughts of sympathy—and a bit of thanks that justice was at last done.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com