Darwinian Rubbernecking


This year marks the 50th anniversary of “American Girl in Italy”, Ruth Orkin’s iconic photograph of men ogling Ninalee Craig as she walked down a street. Despite the cultural stigma now attached to its practice, the rubbernecking of young beautiful women is an everyday phenomenon. From an evolutionary perspective, prehistoric males who did not instinctively tune to visual cues of potential mates with beneficial traits and fecundity would face adverse natural selection pressure. Presumably, males living today have inherited the tendency to rubberneck nubile females because such proximate behaviors translated to improved ultimate fitness during natural selection.

In similar fashion, people driving by a car accident turn their heads to look. In nature, an organism that does not tune to signals of carnage is ignoring potential useful cues of threat in their vicinity and could be subject to elimination. Our tendency to rubberneck trauma, thus, is an adaptation inherited through evolution through the survivorship bias of those who attended to cues of stress that can improve our Darwinian fitness.

Traits shaped and culled during prior eras of evolution can be rendered maladaptive through contextual dislocation. As environments change, inherited traits may no longer serve to maximize evolutionary fitness and may even prove counterproductive. Unlike genetic traits that are passed only between kin, memes are knowledge traits that can confer fitness benefits. They can be communicated directly between individuals, but media can also be an effective tool for disseminating and acquiring memes. This paper considers rubbernecking as an evolutionary adaptation and its function in a modern environment of rapid meme transmission.

Sex and Violence Sell

Given the adaptive value of rubbernecking cues of a threat to survival and reproductive opportunity in our prehistoric past, it is perhaps not surprising that “sex and violence sell” in modern media. Today’s technology enables delivery of real and manufactured (non-fictional and fictional) cues of threats to survival and reproductive opportunity from great distances to a viewer.

Put another way, viewers seek and tune to such cues irrespective of the degree of association between such proximate cues to ultimate fitness. This is because advancements in media innovation have outpaced biologic evolution. Human intrinsic behavioral traits have not evolved fast enough to account for rapid modern advancement in media innovation. In other words, our intrinsic rubbernecking trait was shaped by evolutionary forces of the prehistoric era and did not factor in the context in which such cues would be developed, managed, and distributed through the modern media mechanism.

The evolutionary dislocation (modern media) renders maladaptive the prehistoric tendency to rubberneck when faced with cues of carnage and reproductive opportunity. For instance, viewers seek — and the media industry delivers — high concentrations of cues of horror, stress, violence, death, child abduction, and trauma. Whether in the form of fictional horror movies or YouTube videos of violent acts or everyday newspaper headlines, media connects the attentional instincts of viewers with producers of content that

are interested in drawing that attention, for monetary gains or gains in status or otherwise. If cueing to such scenes and stories of carnage alters the behavior of the viewer — say, they become more fearful or depressed — then rubbernecking has become maladaptive since such scenes of carnage did not occur in the vicinity of the viewer, or were entirely fictional accounts, and thus should not have induced the behavioral changes that they did.

Similarly, in the prehistoric context, when a male visualized a nude female in a reproductive position, it was because the male was about to engage in an activity that could enhance his fitness. This prehistoric trait, however, did not anticipate the possibility that such cues might simply be pixels on a computer and not an actual mating opportunity. Spending energy and resources on porn is nothing more than the satisfaction of a proximate urge that no longer leads to improved fitness, and could be said to be counterproductive. The industry is more than willing to deliver such cues and extract value from the viewer in the process. The rubbernecking of sexy visual cues, as with violence, is a modern evolutionary dysfunction.

Broader Implications For Media

Human communication behaviors were shaped during the prehistoric era when humans lived among kin networks comprised of closely related individuals. The evolution of human communication did not anticipate the modern era where largely unrelated individuals interact. It is intuitively appealing to speculate on the evolutionary dislocations evident in viewer interactions with modern media content.

  • The major fitness altering variables in nature are trauma, sex, food and status changes. The last is particularly important for social species where changes in status can lead to changes in reproductive success. Humans are wired to pay attention to cues that depict changes in status. The change of status can be real. For example, while watching a National Football League game, viewers tune to cues of status change during the game. Attention paid to a game is typically proportional to the number of lead changes. A significant comeback victory near the end, which is a major shift in status, tends to be perceived as a dramatic victory. Humans are highly tuned to watch close sporting contests involving many (close game) or unexpected (dramatic comeback) status changes.
  • Humans pay attention to changes in the status of elements in their environment such as top 40 albums or top 100 colleges. Humans pay attention to BCS ranking changes every week during college football season. Humans pay attention to Internet news stories about their favorite celebrities experiencing status changes upwards and downwards.
  • Such status changes can be fictional, in the form of story narratives that have ups and downs, whether in movies or Shakespearean plays. Stories with nuanced well-crafted status changes tend to be appreciated as good stories and tend to hold the audience’s attention.
  • Humans are wired to pay more attention to high-status individuals than low-status ones. One of the determinants of high status in nature is a person’s size. Big screen televisions and movie screens enlarge human actors, thus increasing their relative status and drawing heightened attention from the audience. A similar effect is achieved by camera angles and visual effects that make a person appear taller (known as Dutch angle).
  • In the tribal context, if a high-status individual was offering advice in the form of a meme, it was probably your close relative that had your best interests in mind because promoting your interests enhanced inclusive fitness through kin altruism. Today, when Shaquille O’Neal suggests you drink Sprite, it is not because he has your fitness interests in mind. Indeed, Mr. O’Neal is motivated almost entirely by self-interest and would dispense such advice to an audience even if it reduced the fitness of the viewer. Despite this one-sided accrual of benefit from the exchange, the model of endorsement-oriented advertising persists: viewers are more than willing to follow such advice even if there is no material benefit to doing so. Simply put, the evolutionary emergence of the prehistoric trait of assimilating advice from high-status individuals did not anticipate the modern era when that individual was not a kinsman with altruistic intentions.
  • The positioning of news anchors seated at edges of tables could be said to mimic the family dinner table at which the father of a household would communicate events of the day to his family.
  • In nature, any movement in the field of view connotes a potential fitness-altering variable. Movement connotes the presence of energy and perhaps signals potential food. Movement can also connote the presence of a threat or a predator. Humans are wired to pay attention to movements. Media content is increasingly exploiting this wiring by delivering scenes at shorter intervals, scenes with fast movement such as car chases, and scenes with many moving parts.

Media forms connections among individuals. In today’s environment, media connects individuals of low-relatedness whereas human attention mechanisms evolved at a time when communication among conspecifics largely occurred among those with shared genetic alignment. There is always some degree of the give-and-take of value in communications, but the misalignment of interest among producers and consumers of content are evident in modern media due to Darwinian dislocation of our rubbernecking traits.

For creators of content, awareness of underlying rubbernecking tendencies of a potential audience can better inform how best to produce and deliver content. For audience members of content, self-awareness of those same tendencies can inform their processing of media content.

Originally published in The Journal of the Palo Alto Institute on January 2012.