July 21, 2023
Our Infatuation with Mysteries

Our Infatuation with Mysteries

The Psychology Behind Our Fascination with Mystery Fiction

Psychologists, literary experts, and avid fans of mystery fiction have long puzzled over the enduring allure of this genre. Beneath the intrigue and suspense lie intriguing clues that hint at deeper, universally human reasons for this fascination.

Who could resist the beguiling charm of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None,’ or the riveting suspense of Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’? Not to mention, the absorbing mystery thrillers that have graced screens, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ or the modern TV series ‘Stranger Things’. Undoubtedly, mystery fiction offers an escape route, an opportunity to delve into a different world, a place that teems with suspense, riddles, and suspenseful resolution.


One psychological rationale for this attraction lies in what’s known as ‘The Uncertainty Reduction Theory’ formulated by Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese in 1975. The theory postulates that individuals harbor an innate need to reduce uncertainty and strive to make sense of their surroundings. Consequently, the tantalizing suspense and unresolved puzzles offered by mystery fiction cater perfectly to this inherent desire. As the plot thickens, so too does the reader’s or viewer’s determination to unravel the perplexing conundrum.

Additionally, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘Flow’, people derive immense satisfaction from immersing themselves in a task that is challenging yet within their abilities. With mystery fiction, each twist and turn presents a challenge to be solved, offering the thrilling prospect of exercising one’s deductive skills. As the plot advances, avid consumers of mystery fiction derive immense satisfaction from the cognitive workout, experiencing a state of ‘Flow’ where time seems to stand still.

Moreover, studies have shown that human beings are naturally curious creatures. According to George Loewenstein’s ‘Information Gap Theory’, when people recognize a gap in their knowledge, they feel a sort of mental itch. It becomes an incentive to find the missing information, compelling them to scratch this cognitive itch. The allure of mystery fiction lies in the strategic withholding of information, which widens this ‘information gap,’ thereby escalating intrigue and driving people to seek closure.

A character’s motive, the setting’s significance, the cryptic clues – all these and more conspire to keep the audience hooked, heightening the anticipation, and leading them down the winding path of discovery. As the final pieces of the puzzle fit together, a sense of accomplishment pervades, stimulating a release of dopamine, the brain’s reward chemical. This, in turn, leaves readers and viewers yearning for more.

Another enthralling factor lies within the realm of social psychology. Often, mystery fiction showcases a battle between good and evil, presenting moral dilemmas and justice-seeking heroes. These narratives tap into what Jonathan Haidt terms as ‘moral intuition’, evoking empathic responses, and allowing audiences to feel satisfaction when justice triumphs, an echo perhaps, of humanity’s evolutionary need for social order and fairness.

For many, the appeal of mystery fiction also resides in the genre’s cathartic quality. Aristotle, in his seminal work ‘Poetics,’ alluded to the cathartic power of art, a concept that still holds true. Delving into the world of mystery fiction can be emotionally purging, allowing one to experience fear, suspense, and relief within a safe context. This engagement with one’s emotions from a distance can indeed be therapeutic, lending a new perspective to life’s real mysteries.

So, within each enticing mystery novel or riveting screen thriller, the lures are manifold – the inherent desire to solve riddles, the appeal of intellectual stimulation, the primal curiosity, the moral engagement, and the therapeutic release. A combination of these factors perhaps explains the captivating charm of mystery fiction, a genre that continues to bewitch generations, affirming its timeless allure in the vast expanse of human psychology.

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