The psychology of crime: Why we’re obsessed with TV thrillers

Laura Hampson
·5 min read
Line of Duty saw 13.8 million viewers tune in for its first episode of season six (BBC)
Line of Duty saw 13.8 million viewers tune in for its first episode of season six (BBC)

If you’re not one of the 13.8 million viewers who have been tuning into hit BBC show Line of Duty each week – what have you been doing?

The gripping police corruption drama has returned to our screens for a sixth series where we’ve seen the AC-12 gang (that’s anti-corruption for the uninitiated) try to uncover the enormous hold that an OCG (organised crime group) has on Britain’s police force.

Created by Jed Mercurio, each episode has been more edge-of-seat than the last and the nation is well and truly hooked too, with the show trending on Twitter each week, several hours before broadcast.

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British telly knows how to do a good crime drama. Alongside Line of Duty, other shows we’ve loved over the years include Broadchurch, Luther, Happy Valley and Bodyguard. It’s mostly gritty, sometimes gruesome and always makes for good TV.

In fact, a 2018 study from Parrot Analytics found that crime drama is the most popular sub genre of television for UK audiences, followed by sitcoms, fantasy drama, sci-fi drama and comedy drama.

So why do we love crime dramas so much? “Much like the adrenaline rush we get from riding a rollercoaster, crime shows allow us to experience a rush from the safety of our sofas,” therapist and Counselling Directory member Paul Mollitt tells Yahoo UK.

“Particularly in true crime, we get access to elements of society that are hidden and frightening. We see inside the minds of criminals and begin to understand their motives, which may give us a sense of security – knowledge is power.”

Programme Name: Line of Duty S6 - TX: n/a - Episode: Line Of Duty - Ep 4 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:  DI Kate Fleming (VICKY MCCLURE), DCI Joanne Davidson (KELLY MACDONALD) - (C) World Productions - Photographer: Steffan Hill
AC-12 member DI Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) with DCI Joanne Davidson (Kelly Macdonald), the villain of the sixth season (BBC)

Another factor behind our obsession is that we love solving puzzles and crime dramas give us ample opportunity to do so.

“Crime dramas cast us as detectives alongside the rest of the cast, searching for evidence, scrutinising facts and faces and betting on an outcome based on instinct, which can be thrilling, especially when we predict accurately,” he continues.

“These shows also tap into our innate sense of good and evil and thirst for justice – the majority of crime dramas lead to a satisfying resolution where justice is served, which is also reassuring – good triumphing over evil.”

Psychologist Lee Chambers says that being drawn to crime dramas serves “several healthy psychological processes,” too.

“It's healthy and normal, in moderation. They give us a glimpse into the minds of those willing to completely break social norms,” Chambers explains.

“We get to explore things we would never do ourselves and understand how we might protect ourselves from these incidents. Crime itself is a spectacle that we can experience in the comfort and safety of our own home.”

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Chambers says one of the reasons it's so popular is because we are simultaneously fascinated by and fear crime in equal measure. Watching fictional crime on TV means we're able to experience the emotions in a controlled environment, where the feeling of threat is present, but you know you’re ultimately safe.

“We are bombarded by crime in the media and it has become a little normalised, but it makes us increasingly interested in how it's happened and the minds of the individuals involved. It gives us permission to explore evil and helps us to consider what it would be like to be a perpetrator or a victim,” Chambers continues.

“We can feel a sense of relief that we are not the victim, and that at least it hasn't happened to us. We also get an adrenaline rush, and that euphoric effect is like an entertaining, emotional rollercoaster, alongside the fun and challenge of trying to solve the mystery.”

It’s also partly to do with morbid curiosity, which Mollitt says is a “very human trait”.

“Crime shows enable us to see through the eyes of criminals for a while, walk in their shoes in an attempt to understand such depravity,” Mollitt continues.

“They are also pure escapism – exciting, dramatic and they take us away from the sometimes routine predictability of life. The immersion in this chaos and danger is controlled and transient though and once the show is over, we can return to the bright lights and comfort of our daily lives.”

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Watching a crime show can do similar things to our brains that watching horror can - it releases adrenaline. And, when this chemical is not a response to a real-world emergency, it can provide feelings of pleasure.

“When watching a crime show, our brain may produce endorphins (usually associated with heart-pumping exercise or sex) as well as feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin,” Mollitt adds. 

The reason we’re so drawn to Line of Duty, in particular, is because the characters are so relatable - each with their own quirks and imperfections – and the fact that the show is so complex, it’s hard to predict what’s coming next.

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“On top of this, the stakes they face are sky-high – not only are they police officers, they are anti-corruption police officers and investigating in the most difficult circumstances. They are the faces of good over evil and we root for them the whole way through,” Mollitt adds.

“The gore is pretty minimal, but audiences don’t seem to need this in a good psychological drama where its breathless pace, weekly cliff-hangers and constantly shifting sands keep us on the edge of our seats. Many of the most thrilling scenes aren’t high speed chases or killings but the police interviews in the transparent rooms of AC-12. Whilst in other shows these interviews can be a little dull, in Line of Duty they are gripping – every glance, every new document produced as evidence, every word keeps us on the edge of our seats.”