If your curiousity of a bushfire outweighs your fear, then that's not stupidity but a 'positive unknown'

A police officer advises people to stop watching and leave as the bushfire burns closer from the Namadgi National Park. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
A police officer advises people to stop watching and leave as the bushfire burns closer from the Namadgi National Park. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Canberra's much-maligned bushfire "rubber neckers" might be mostly spectating and hunting the perfect social media post but there's also a small number that are drawn to the situation's psychological excitement and potential danger.

And since there's no way to tell them apart, it's little wonder police and emergency services had to repeatedly highlight the dangers posed by sightseers clogging the roads in Canberra's southern suburbs during the height of the Orroral Valley fire.

Police said that on the weekend as the fire was at its height, patrols had to be diverted to deal with more than 50 people, including parents with children, who were parked along Point Hut Crossing and watching the ominous sight of the Orroral Valley fire sweeping closer to Canberra.

Public access to Tidbinbilla Road had been closed at this location and police needed the area clear in case emergency vehicles required rapid access.

It was one of a number of repeated public warnings issued by police to bushfire sightseers trying to find the best vantage points, much to the annoyance of residents in affected suburban areas.

ACT Acting Superintendant Rod Anderson tells the Tharwa community about the dangers of bushfire 'rubber-neckers' impeding emergency vehicles. PIcture: Karleen Minney

ACT Acting Superintendant Rod Anderson tells the Tharwa community about the dangers of bushfire 'rubber-neckers' impeding emergency vehicles. PIcture: Karleen Minney

However, an ANU psychologist and researcher believes that risk takers who find such things as watching fast-advancing bushfires visually enthralling and want to get closer have a psychological make-up which may be important to human adaptation.

Professor Mike Smithson, from the ANU Research School of Psychology said that his study of the "positive unknowns" in human behaviour had revealed that people willing to ignore risks to personal safety and are attracted to situations that others find too dangerous are, historically, the "explorers" of modern society.

"There's a fuzzy line between those situations that make people anxious or terrified and those that excite them," Professor Smithson said.

"There are those people to whom a degree of fear and uncertainty is a negative but equally, others find this a stimulating and positive experience."

A bushfire burns out of control in Namadgi National Park. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

A bushfire burns out of control in Namadgi National Park. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

And while hunting for the best bushfire vantage point also could be interpreted as a way for social media climbers to take a picture which attracts the most online attention, Professor Smithson observed this human "positive unknown" trait years before the arrival of Facebook and Instagram.

"When I was studying at James Cook University in Townsville some 20 years ago, I was consulting for the Bureau of Meteorology on how to best frame the most effective cyclone public warning messaging so that people would listen, take heed and seek shelter," he said.

"But regardless of the messaging - and this is long before social media - there were always people who heard it, but ignored it.

"I recall there was one particularly large and intense cyclone which was marching directly toward Townsville and while most people in the city were battening down and preparing for the worst, there were still a small number on the oceanfront, in really risky places, trying to watch the cyclone approach.

"These people weren't oblivious to the fact that what they were doing had a high degree of risk, but their curiosity far outweighed it.

"That's when I became interested in this 'positive unknown' effect."

There are a number of theories which explore the reasons behind this behaviour, including that risk-taking spikes dopamine levels in the human brain. However, the researcher believes the "positive unknowns" are different to the out-and-out thrill-seekers.

Nor is this behaviour specific to human beings.

He said that in studies of bird colonies, there are always those small number of birds willing to overlook a particularly close and easy food patch and keep on flying, looking for the next food patch.

"The bird colony depends on these explorers among them for its survival because that easily-accessed food patch will run out eventually and only the explorers who took the risk to fly on will know where the next one is," he said.

This story When bushfire attraction means more than just an Instagram post first appeared on The Canberra Times.