Who doesn’t love to escape from reality? Increasingly, over the last decade and change, television viewers escape their own realities by watching other people’s. Unscripted reality television programs have grown from a handful of shows in 2000 to around 320 programs in 2010. Reality television isn’t new – shows that featured real people and real reactions are a long-time staple, and pioneer Candid Camera has been around for 65 years. But the growth in reality television programming has some researchers concerned about the impact reality TV has on the American viewing audience, from claims that it encourages narcissism to concerns that it glorifies bullying.
The term narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful young man who was so proud of himself and disdainful of others that the goddess Nemesis cursed him to fall in love with his own reflection. Narcissistic behavior includes that same vanity and pride, disdain for others and behavior that elevates the narcissist while being detrimental to others. It’s easy to see narcissistic behavior’s dominant place in reality TV: some programs focus on people who are vain enough to believe that everyone cares about their normal lives.
Dr. Audrey Longson and her team conducted a study of 159 subjects, watching their interactions on social media and redirecting them to web-based surveys about their television-watching demographics. Sherry Boschert of Clinical Psychiatry News covered the study in her July 2013 article “Blognosis: Narcissism and Reality TV: Chicken or Egg?” According to Boschert, “Watching reality TV didn’t appear to predict the development of narcissistic traits, but it’s too soon to dismiss the idea of reality TV viewership as an environmental factor related to narcissism, her findings suggest.” Longson suggested that the type of reality TV a watcher consumes may have an impact as well: fans of Keeping up with the Kardashians and Real Housewives “were more likely to feel that they had power over others and that they were more special than others,” for example. Educational television programs, on the other hand, showed no correlation between narcissistic traits.
What about the programs where people love to be mean? Gordon Ramsay on Kitchen Nightmares regularly swears at, insults, and screams at the show’s participants. Ex-American-Idol judge Simon Cowell was notorious for his harsh words to contestants. A UK study of the British version of The Apprentice reported that the program featured 85 aggressive acts in the show’s one hour air time.
Jen Christensen of CNN.com wrote in her February 28, 2013, article “Our unhealthy love of reality TV bullying” that psychologist Sarah Coyne of Brigham Young University found that reality TV “depicts nearly twice the number of aggressive acts as dramas or comedies.” Studies have previously shown that people who watch aggressive behavior on television over a long period are more likely to be aggressive in their daily lives.
In 2011, a Girl Scout Research Institute study looked at the way reality TV could impact trust between girls.
- 78% of girls who watch reality TV thought gossip between girls was normal, as compared to 54% of girls who didn’t watch reality TV
- 68% of reality TV watchers expected girls to be catty; only 50% of their peers felt the same
- 63% of girls watching reality TV felt that trusting other girls was difficult; only 50% of non-watchers had the same hesitation
Although there is a rise in concerns about bullying in schools and educational programs designed to stop bullying, the popularity of watching television bullies hasn’t gone away.
To the nth degree
Other viewers are less concerned with the psychological impacts of reality TV than the bizarre programs being released. To counter the silliness of some programming, PBS released three fake trailers for made-up reality TV programs, tweeting about them under the hashtag #TVGoneWrong. But in a post on NBC’s Today, “Top 10 outrageous reality shows,” contributors noted that going to the extreme is nothing new. They cited several over-the-top programs over the years:
- My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance; the one-season show featured a woman lying to her family to convince them she was getting married to an utter jerk. The experiment worked with hurt feelings all around, but the show itself was a flop.
- Temptation Island; lasting for three seasons, the show brought couples together to a paradise island, then tried to break apart their relationships.
- The Swan; a two-season survivor, the show offered “ugly ducklings” a chance to undergo plastic surgery to compete in a pageant.
What do you think about reality TV? Does watching impact your outlook on life, or do you prefer shows the more outrageous the better?
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