6 Scientific Reasons You Can't Stop Looking At Ruin Porn

From hedonic reversal to fear of boredom, these psychological concepts offer insight into why that dilapidated warehouse is so appealing.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography, "I know it when I see it," but ruin porn--the name for photos of abandoned buildings and ravaged landscapes--feels tougher to discern. Is an image of Michigan Central Station in Detroit a symbol of impermanence every bit as poignant as the Colosseum in Rome? Or is it a morbid curiosity that exploits and invades the honest history of a place for our own guilty pleasure?

Whatever your answers, you've had plenty of recent opportunities to consider the questions. Ruin porn is one of the Internet's favorite tropes, with the lens often focused squarely on struggling Detroit. Local blogger James Griffioen reportedly coined the term during a 2009 interview with Vice, in which he blasts photographers who parachute into town for a few sultry shots. But the style is not unique to the Motor City; Curbed has a "ruin porn" tag for its New York and Philadelphia sites, too.

Some reasonable opinions have been offered for why we can't stop looking at ruin porn, but few have informed their positions with behavioral science. The evidence is admittedly thin, and the individual motivations too varied and complex for any easy explanation. So we identified six psychological concepts that might give at least a little insight into why that dilapidated warehouse is so awkwardly appealing. Consider them the ruin porn of your mind.

Hedonic Reversal

How it works. People enjoy doing things that logic suggests they shouldn't: eating chili peppers, popping pimples, watching sad movies, working to exhaustion, and so on. These so-called acts of hedonic reversal (and its related process, benign masochism) convert seemingly negative experiences into positive ones. Part of the pleasure here is that the body challenges the mind's expectation, and wins. It's like pulling a fast one on yourself.

How it applies to ruin porn. There's no logical reason why looking at a picture filled with shattered glass and caved-in walls and heaped debris should be enjoyable. But when ruin porn turns out to be engaging, viewers might derive some additional pleasure from proving that intuition wrong. A 2013 study of hedonic reversal led by psychologist Paul Rozin found that sad creative works--including sad paintings, which seem related to sad photographs--produced an abundance of pleasure.

"More than any other hedonic reversal, the liking of sadness is engaged by works of art; it has an aesthetic quality," Rozin and collaborators conclude.

The Tragedy Paradox

How it works. The tragedy paradox, a close cousin to hedonic reversal, finds that the sadder a particular aesthetic experience (sad movies, films, songs, etc.), the greater a viewer's enjoyment will be. The easiest explanation of this paradox--offered in a recent study of sad films--is that "we simply like to be moved." Another recent study of tragic enjoyment found that such situations make us reflect on life, and in particular our relationships, in ways that ultimately make us happy.

How it applies to ruin porn. With the caveat that Detroit may still emerge stronger from its recent hardship, the rise and fall of a once-great American city certainly approaches tragic proportions. Insofar as the broken images from Detroit constitute an aesthetic experience, they may have the capacity to move us or make us reflect on our own situations in a positive light. Eric G. Wilson, author of Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, has suggested as much in his own analysis of morbid curiosity.

"Affliction can reveal what is most sacred in our lives, essential to our joy," Wilson wrote in late 2011.

Bad Is Stronger Than Good

How it works. In one of psychology's classic studies, published in 2001, a research group led by Roy Baumeister documented the overwhelming evidence that people respond to bad events more than good ones. The superiority of negativity holds true for relationships, friendships, moods, parenting styles, stereotypes and reputations, feedback and critique, and health and happiness. If only to avoid it, the mind pays far more attention to the bad than to the good.

How it applies to ruin porn. Ruin porn--and disaster porn more broadly--clearly falls under the umbrella of bad events. We may be drawn to ruin porn for the same reason negative stories have led nightly newscasts for years: that's what our minds prefer. Again, though, as Baumeister and fellow researchers speculate, the negative fixation might serve a positive evolutionary function.

"Generally, individuals who are attuned to preventing and rectifying bad things should flourish and thrive more than individuals oriented primarily toward maximizing good things," they write.

The Benign-Violations Theory

How it works. Mark Twain once reduced humor to an equation of "tragedy plus time." That's an oversimplification, of course, but it does speak to the odd delight people often derive from terrible events. Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado recently developed this concept into a "benign-violations" theory of humor. In recent studies, McGraw and collaborators have shown that safety--often derived from psychological distance--can convert threats into jokes.

How it applies to ruin porn. Benign-violations theory begins to explain why Detroit residents detest ruin porn while people with more psychological distance can filter the images into something amusing (if not actually funny). McGraw cites four types of distance: spatial, social, mental, and temporal. So if you live far from Detroit, or have no social ties there, or use the Internet to create a mental buffer, you're likely to find ruin porn more appealing than someone living there in the moment.

"The role that psychological distance plays is as a moderator of the degree to which something is wrong and the degree to which something is okay," McGraw told me last year.

Schadenfreude

How it works. English has appropriated the German word schadenfreude to describe the pleasure that often comes from another's misfortune. Research on sports fans, in particular, has found clear evidence of this mean delight; in one brain imaging study of Yankees and Red Sox fans, failure by the rival activated neural areas related to pleasure. Envy and resentment are two sources of the feeling, though it's not entirely separate from sympathy; people do experience both at once.

How it applies to ruin porn. Viewers who enjoys ruin porn don't necessarily feel that way at the expense of the ruined city. But others might feel a sense of gleeful superiority, particularly if they see the ruin as a reflection of political choices they opposed. A 2009 study found that test participants with strong political affiliations experienced schadenfreude from news about an economic downturn or housing foreclosures when the rival party (ostensibly) caused the problem.

"Because of these policies, this is what happened--if you come at it from that angle, you could say, ha-ha-ha," psychologist Richard Smith of the University of Kentucky, who's written a book on schadenfreude and was part of the 2009 study, tells Co.Design. "It's almost like gloating."

Fear of Boredom

How it works. Boredom is a great way to get some thinking done, but with an endless supply of digital distractions, being bored has become largely extinct. Very recent research, published in the journal Science, suggests some people will go to great lengths to avoid sitting alone with their thoughts. Rather than do nothing but think for 6 to 15 minutes, many test participants gave themselves an electric shock--just for something to do.

How it applies to ruin porn. In the sense that ruin porn counts as one of the many forms of digital distraction that exist today, it's reasonable to wonder how many people click on these images out of sheer boredom with the workday. And given that many of the photographs might be described as shocking, it's also reasonable to wonder if these same folks consider ruin porn a sort of jolt to the system. They don't give the pictures much thought, and that's the point.

"The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself," concluded the authors of the Science paper. Quick, find it some ruin porn.

[Image: Flickr user Erik Mauer]

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14 Comments

  • Yannis Hat

    We don’t like simple and ‘documentarish’ photos of ruins but rather, artistic, almost glamorous photos of them. We all want to defeat death and mortality. And in such photos we transform a human work (i.e. a projection of ourselves) that is obviously perishable, into something that still lasts and that - in its own way and merit – may be considered imperishable.

    I believe that a sexy, semi-naked woman posing in ruins is the more evident example of why we like pictures of ruins. There, life and vitality are boldly juxtaposed with the decadence and mortality around. Human lasts – in spite the wear of time.

    If immortality is The Uncatchable Human Dream (i.e. the ‘porn’ element), then ruins stand for the exact opposite of porn. Instead, the real ‘porn’ in these pictures lies in the element of glamour, of vitality, of endurance, through which ruins are represented, juxtaposed - and in a way, reversed.

    http://yannis-h.wix.com/yannish

  • illuminelevate

    Why do people feel the need to attached the word "porn" to anything aesthetically pleasing?

  • chrisjoaq

    A tremendous behavioral subject to continue exploring. Thanks to Eric for this article. I believe the fascination, draw and in some cases, obsession is tied also to the human yearning for humanity, communities and things that were once "new" or "grand" to be returned to their original state.

    Case in point the explosive growth of #tbt hashtag...nostalgia, wanting to connect, in a more visceral way...with what once was....this is white hot psychology..

  • Jim Stone

    I'm fascinated by the processes of decay -- physical, economic, social, and political -- that could produce these ruins. I'm sure I'm not the only one whose interest is more intellectual and not as primal as what this article posits.

  • Annie Drummond

    I believe its more about the feeling of discovery and the craving for gratifying efforts. With relatively little effort any of these scenes could look absolutely amazing because the bones are there already. Looking at the pictures allows us to hang in that lovely space (albeit hypothetically) of choosing a project or not and more importantly how we would go about it. Or said a different way how we could leave our mark on that space. Down to ego maybe?

  • Lauren Pearce Ghazikhanian

    Great article! I have another theory I think should be explored, and forgive me for not knowing the scientific word for it. Our brains are trained to recognize patterns and classify objects. When buildings are falling apart, those rules we learned about how a wall or ceiling or floor should look are broken. Thus, we pay more attention to it because it is new and at some survival level our brain thinks the information may be important.

    Any thoughts on this theory?

  • Jeremy Villano

    People also simply like stories. And what better stories -- real or imagined -- than of grand homes and buildings that have fallen on sad times...

  • Sam Doohicky

    How does this apply to DESIGN?

    I believe this is a clinical illness and you should seek professional therapy before you go blind.

  • Judith Davidsen

    Good question. Back around 1990 you couldn't open a professional design magazine without falling into a photo essay on the wreckage of Ellis Island or the Philadelphia Penitentiary. Didn't make any sense for a design audience, but was a field day for photographers.