Last week I had the pleasure of being at the American Psychological Association (APA) Meeting in Washington, D.C.  In addition to being surrounded by nearly 14,000 psychologists and having access to cutting edge presentations by some of the best clinicians and researchers in the field, something else amazing was going on. It was Shark Week.

No, this is not some clever and not so subtle metaphor about the APA. I am referring to the Discovery Channel’s annual week of programming about the lives of sharks and the humans who try to get to know them. After long days of meetings, I found myself captivated in the evenings watching sharks in all of their beautiful and terrifying glory. I saw real and simulated shark attacks (fake blood in the water looks really fake), learned how it is that sharks can do the damage that they do (serrated teeth and thrashing—it’s not just the bite), and gleaned insight regarding what to do to avoid a shark attack (stay out of the water).

Shark Week boasts 30 million viewers.  Apparently, I am not the only one who got caught by shark mania.  Why?

People likely watch Shark Week for different reasons. Part of the appeal must have to do with the same reasons people like horror movies. Fears about being attacked (and psychoanalytically speaking) our own aggressive impulses have to be channeled into something outside of ourselves. However, I am not a fan of horror movies and just like murder scenes on television shows, I covered my eyes when thinking some unsuspecting person might be on the verge of becoming a shark snack. For me, Shark Week was about tales of tragedy and survival.

There is a lot in life we can control. In an episode included as part of Shark Week programming, a man was feeding a moray eel sausages. Why?  I do not know.  Nevertheless, these sausages looked curiously like human fingers. You can guess the outcome. This man has one less finger, though fortunately doctors were able to replace his finger with one of his toes. His disabilities from this accident are minimal. The lesson here? Don’t mess with eels by getting them used to eating something that looks like a part of your anatomy.

Juxtaposed with the above was a scene of a woman minding her own business in a kayak. In a random, wrong place at the wrong time scenario she got attacked. She lived.

I think we love Shark Week because it is really a tale about how life is for all of us. Some tragedies can be avoided if we do not take certain risks.

Bad things still happen to us however, even when we are simply going about our lives. There is a lot we cannot control.  When we are caught off guard by the sharks and random events in our lives, we aim for survival. In this way, we have a lot in common with actual sharks who are just trying to do what they have always done: live, eat, mate, reproduce, and try to maintain control of their environment.

Note:  The author is a Council Representative for Division 39 of the American Psychological Association. Division 39 is the Division of Psychoanalysis, which promotes both psychoanalysis and psychodynamic approaches to psychological treatment.