Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why we watch reality TV

If you happened to watch The Bachelorette on Monday, you probably resolved never to watch another episode. Although a lot of the emotions on this show are clearly scripted, the cruelty that Ashley faced that night - from her suitors and from the producers who staged the events - was very real, and very painful to watch. And yet this is not the first time that reality TV has shocked and appalled us, or the first time we have vowed never to watch it again. What is it about reality TV that keeps drawing us back in? 

From a social psychological perspective, reality TV
 is more than just mindless entertainment. It taps into some of our most basic psychological needs - the need to feel connected to others, the need to feel good about ourselves, and the need to understand social dynamics. 

Non-subtle rejection
Comfort in connection. The need for relatedness and belonging is fundamental to human nature. We want to feel connected to other people, and we don't want to feel alone and isolated. Reality shows, true to their name, do provide many opportunities to relate. In particular, rejection, elimination, and other forms of public humiliation are regular events on many shows. In one infamous season of the Bachelor, for example, literally every contestant was rejected. Rejection is an experience that most people are intimately familiar with and that research suggests can be so painful that it physically hurts - social pain actually activates the  same brain regions as physical pain. Witnessing others' experiences of rejection, though upsetting to watch, can also be comforting in that they remind us we're not alone. These things happen to everyone (even confident, attractive people). Researchers refer to this experience as common humanity - the awareness that the ways in which we personally suffer are shared by other people. This feeling can make us more compassionate towards other people and towards ourselves. We may also feel inspired by people who overcome obstacles and succeed in the end - upward social comparison gives us hope and motivates us to improve ourselves. 

It could be worse
A self-esteem boost. In addition to feeling comforted when we can relate to others' plight, reality TV provides many opportunities for a less noble goal - affirming our self-worth by derogating others. When we engage in downward social comparison, we compare ourselves to people who are worse off than we are in order to feel better about our own situation. “At least I’m not that pathetic,” we reassure ourselves when we see someone make a fool of themselves. These downward comparisons may temporarily improve mood and self-esteem, but they also tend to involve negative aspects like defensiveness and distancing that are not helpful in the long-run. 

Social information. Although few of us would admit that we actually learn something from reality TV, it's really no different from any other time we're captivated by gossip or fascinated by the strange dynamics of a couple fighting in public: we are programmed to look to our social environments to learn more about how they work - with the ultimate goal of navigating our own social worlds more skillfully. Of course, most of this occurs on a non-conscious level (unless you're a social psychologist and it's your job). Reality shows provide plenty of examples of what not to dobut in rare moments they may also show us what works - for example, how to build a genuine friendship with someone you're in competition with, how to stay strong in a stressful environment, or how to be resilient after failure.  Unfortunately, some of the information we learn from reality TV is inaccurate and destructive. For example, many reality shows reinforce negative ethnic and gender stereotypes and promote materialistic values. Thankfully some shows, like Secret MillionaireAmazing Race, and Teach, draw on more inspiring messages.

So next time you find yourself drawn to reality TV against your better judgment, just remember that there's a reason these shows suck us in. In addition to their pure entertainment value, they give us comfort, self-esteem, and sometimes even teach us something valuable. That said, in the end it's up to us to have the self-control to turn off the TV when it starts eating away at our souls. 

Baumeister RF, & Leary MR (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological bulletin, 117 (3), 497-529 PMID: 7777651

Eisenberger NI, & Lieberman MD (2004). Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in cognitive sciences, 8 (7), 294-300 PMID: 15242688

Taylor, Shelley E; Lobel, Marci (1989). Social comparison activity under threat: Downward evaluation and upward contacts Psychological Review, 96 (4), 569-575 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.96.4.569

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