Why We are Fascinated by Other People’s Disasters

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So what would you do if you saw a couple breaking up right in front of you?

A couple you don’t know at all, and you’re sharing a confined space with them. Well, this was a reality for Kelly Keegs. She was sitting in her seat, waiting for the plane to take off, when she realized that something was going down (poor choice of words?) between a couple a few seats away. The guy was breaking up with his girlfriend, and the girlfriend apparently wasn’t too concerned about attracting an audience with her “sobs.”

Keegs dealt with this awkward situation the best way she knew how—by live tweeting the fiasco. The tweeter provided minute-by-minute updates: quoting the girl, quoting the guy, while incorporating a sprinkling of her own thoughts. And the Twitter world loved it.

People reposted her tweets in such quantity that her phone began freezing between her breaking-news updates. Click here to read Keegs’ report.

plane 3We’ve all been there. We know that “it’s not polite to stare,” and that we shouldn’t be intruding on someone else’s personal business, but sometimes we just can’t peel our eyes away. On many occasions, while stuck in traffic on the highway, I’ve found myself becoming irritated as I realize there is a car accident on the other side of the highway, and the car jam is due to people simply slowing down to get a good look at the damage as they drive by. I’m infuriated. How insensitive!

But then when I pass by the wreck, I gently push the break…and look to my left. Why do we stop and stare? Why don’t we mind our own business?

I think Dr. Stephen Mason’s got it right, “…the joy comes from the fact that…it’s not you.” There is something comforting about watching the drama unfold in someone else’s life while being able to keep our own emotional distance. We are only spectators; we don’t have to feel the pain, the humiliation, or the sadness. Instead, we can just sit there and observe, thinking quietly to ourselves, “Oh, I wouldn’t have said that!” or, “Here’s what I would have done.”

Keegs is the perfect example; her tweets make it clear that she was thoroughly enjoying the show: “This is the greatest plane delay I’ve ever had.” We can watch (and judge) while keeping our own hands clean.

These public displays also serve as a great distraction from the drama in our own lives. While watching a coworker get scolded by the boss, all the sudden I’m feeling pretty good about my own job performance; I forget all about the anxiety and stress I felt that morning. And while I might have it rough in one area of my life, at least I’m not being dumped by my significant other right as the plane is about to take off…with someone live-tweeting the worst day of my life! My life is going pretty well at this point!

Apparently, the distraction worked for more than just Keegs; the breaking-news reporter gained over 7,000 new followers due to her live tweets. We’ve got to admit, as insensitive as it sounds (or is?), there is something kind of great about watching a guy break up with his girlfriend on a plane.

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