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What is ‘rubbernecking’?


In a recent scientific study, researchers were able to discover a newly named brain phenomenon. This phenomenon was termed as ‘attentional rubbernecking,’ or ‘rubbernecking’ for short.

“Attentional rubbernecking” is what happens when our eyes see an erotic, violent image, or any other picture of shocking nature. Then after seeing such images, our brains cannot seem to process the full information of that image. Often our brains cannot process what our eyes are seeing, and then we have trouble anticipating what will come after that image because our brains have been confused by a shocking picture.

To test this phenomenon, the researchers asked a group of research participants to view a series of images. They discovered that research subjects had a harder time detecting an image if it provoked a strong emotional response. Subjects have a harder time identifying the visual cues of an image that had erotic or violent content. The researchers compared this to research subjects viewing more neutral images. On average, there was a significant increase in the amount of time it took to identify images of violent content. Research subjects often took a few more seconds identifying photos with significant emotional content, as opposed to neutral photographs. It took an extra few seconds for their brains to process what their eyes were seeing.


The results of the effect were what motivated scientists to call this effect “attentional rubbernecking.” This is because the effect of being distracted by violent or erotic photos is very similar to the effect of seeing a car accident on a highway. Seeing a car wreck on a highway, and then stopping to view it, is called rubbernecking. You may not want to see the accident, or in this case photos, but your emotions force you to view them and then distract you for a few seconds too.

In a more detail review of the test, research subjects were asked to find a specific picture among a pile of other pictures, which featured buildings and nature landscapes. In between those neutral pictures, were placed images that depicted some violence or erotic content. The researchers discovered that subjects had a harder time searching for a specific picture when they came across any of these erotic or violent images. The closer that these kinds of photos were placed on the specific images that they were supposed to find, the longer it took them to find their goal pictures. The length of time of distraction was then same for both erotic and violent images.

Researchers have stated while there are no immediately identifiable impacts of these on attention span and visual processing, this ”attentional rubbernecking” effect could have negative consequences for us. This “attentional rubbernecking” effect also cannot be controlled, scientists suspect. Our brains and its chemistry are simply built to process visual information and attention this way.

The scientists compared this effect to have a bottleneck for the amount of information our brains can process. We can only process so much information at one time. And if one piece of visual information is more jarring than others, such as a violent or erotic image, then that bottleneck of information is essentially clogged up, and our attention spans stall. This stalling of the attention span could be affected by a huge number of factors, and not just violent or erotic imagery. We could become distracted by a huge number of upsetting factors.


In the real world, this “attentional rubbernecking” effect could negatively impact our performance at work or when we are simply driving. A sexually explicit or lewd advertisement could stick in our mind more, and we end up being tricked into not paying attention to our surroundings.