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Why Were We So Obsessed with the Zimmerman Trial?

The George Zimmerman trial is finally coming to a close. Hallelujah.

For the past two weeks, if you watched any of the major cable news networks, you could very well have reached the unlikely conclusion that the outside world had been temporarily expunged from existence, replaced by a rather typical looking courtroom in Sanford, Florida.

But life is still definitely going on. In case you missed it, there was a coup in Egypt. CNN broke into the Zimmerman trial for all of a few hours on July 3rd for a few token camera shots of Tahrir Square. Then it was back to the case, and all of its awkward knock-knock jokes, unorthodox testimonies, and strangely provocative bouts of mannequin straddling.

dummy straddle.jpgThere is, of course, a simple reason why the media has blitzed the public with nonstop coverage of the George Zimmerman trial: because a lot of Americans keep watching. I wonder, what about the trial is so tantalizing to so many?

Frank Farley, a Temple University professor and former president of the American Psychological Association, believes a number of enticing elements are at play in blockbuster trials. One of them is uncertainty.

"Much of our national interest falls under this factor. We are interested

in uncertain outcomes -- never give away the ending of the movie!

Uncertain behavior -- where the truth is unclear, the events are

clouded, and the picture is always changing -- is a source of

fascination, or even fear, depending on the person and the situation," he wrote.

Also involved is a certain morbid fascination with the dark side of humanity. Innocently watching the trial from a comfy sofa or an elliptical at the gym, one can ponder what drove Zimmerman to kill the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Was it self-defense? Was it a hoodie?

"Humans have, for millennia, been interested in evil, violence, hate, and

horror. We understand normal life. But why an individual will kill or

deliberately inflict horrific pain on another remains largely a mystery.

We have theories, some good ones, but certitude eludes us. So our

curiosity compels our attention to life-and-death adjudications," Farley explained.

Judgement is a third key factor. Humans are drawn to justice, as well as its dark counterpart, revenge. Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom has dedicated a good chunk of his career to researching the human moral sense. He's deduced that even in the first year of life, we can distinguish between good and bad acts, we can feel pain at the pain of others, and we can even dispense vigilante justice. One of Bloom's signature experiments involved having babies watch a puppet show in which one character mistreats another. The infants are then given the option to take a treat away from one of the two puppets as punishment. In 2010, Bloom recalled a memorable moment from these experiments in the New York Times.

"Like most children in this situation, the boy took [the treat] from the pile of

the 'naughty' one. But this punishment wasn't enough -- he then leaned

over and smacked the puppet in the head."  

Though watching trials on television doesn't provide the judicial satisfaction of whacking evil puppets, it does give us a chance to watch justice be done, perhaps sating some ingrained need.

Without any desire to engage in what I personally consider to be legal system voyeurism, I have pretty much insulated myself from the trial. Choosing to forgo a cable television subscription, this has been pretty easy. But, whenever I venture to my local gym to exercise, I must admit I have not been able to totally avert my gaze from the trial. Shooting the occasional glance over at one of the two wall-mounted televisions tuned in to CNN, I find myself strangely transfixed with the proceedings.

Wow. Zimmerman's defense attorney really looks like Leonard Nimoy, I think to myself.