Television programs portraying ordinary people in unexpected situations are almost as old as the medium of television itself. First aired in 1984, Candid Camera is often seen as a prototype of the reality show. Its premise was simple – unsuspecting people were confronted with unusual, funny situations and filmed with hidden cameras. However, the genre exploded as a phenomenon in the late 1990s and 2000s with the global success of such series as Survivor, Idol, and Big Brother, and to this day many people continue to abandon their own activities for the voyeuristic other.
Reality shows have not only amassed incredible popularity but have also become an object of severe, wide-ranging criticism. Among the most serious complaints is the allegation that the shows rely on viewers’ enjoyment of the humiliation and degradation of participants. It is quite difficult to find an individual who is indifferent to such programmes. We either hate reality shows or we watch them, quite often without considering why.
Up until now, scholarly opinion on the subject has been divided. Some maintain that the shows’ appeal constitutes an extension of fictional drama, and is thus driven by positive feelings like empathy and compassion. Others claim that reality TV viewers are driven by a voyeuristic desire to intrude on others and to see them in their most private and embarrassing moments. Michal Hershman Shitrit and Jonathan Cohen from University of Haifa in Israel recently tested these contrasting perspectives for a study in the Journal of Media Psychology.
They surveyed 183 participants about 12 different reality shows including local versions of well-known productions such as Big Brother, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Master Chef, and Super Nanny. Participants stated how often they watched each show, how much they enjoyed the shows, the extent to which they would want to participate if offered a chance, how happy they would be if a family member was interested in participating, etc. Among the most important questions were ones involving self-disclosure (items asked to what extent one would reveal to a stranger various types of information, such as “Your personal habits” or “Things you have done and feel guilty about.”), as the researchers hypothesized that self-disclosure would be positively correlated with one’s own willingness to participate in reality shows.
The idea behind the questions about loved ones participating was to measure attitudes towards participation at a slight distance, independent from the respondents’ own personality traits and willingness to participate. Shitrit and Cohen assumed that if people do not wish to be humiliated or see their loved ones publicly humiliated, and at the same time they enjoy reality shows for the humiliation involved, one would expect a negative correlation between enjoyment and willingness to participate. If, on the other hand, empathy is the main reason why people enjoy these shows, the correlation should be positive.
Overall, interest in participating in reality shows was not very high, but crucially, the more that participants said they enjoyed the shows, the more likely they were to say that they’d like to participate, or for a loved one to participate. Unsurprisingly, participants who scored highly in the self-disclosure measure also tended to be more interested in participating in reality shows. On the whole, approval for family members’ participation in reality shows was higher than the desire for self-participation.
Shitrit and Cohen concluded that this tricky and innovative test of the real reasons behind enjoyment of reality shows allowed them to discover that humiliation is not the central motivation, which must rather be empathy.
Are these findings good news for all those who enjoy reality shows and for those who would like to perceive human creatures as good and positive? I would not be so eager to shout the good news to the whole world. Humans are quite complex creatures. Not only do we love others, but quite often we do not like some of them, and at times even hate them. I wonder what results would be generated by a study in which we asked participants not about their loved ones, but rather those they despised? Isn’t it true that we are overly optimistic not only about ourselves but also about our loved ones, and we can’t imagine that we or they would find themselves in embarrassing situations? Conversely, isn’t it the case that we would like to see our enemies embarrass themselves, and we can easily imagine this occurring? In which case, surely it’s possible that we enjoy reality shows in part because of feeling empathy and sympathy when watching participants we like, while at the same time finding enjoyment in seeing those we do not like in their most humiliating and embarrassing moments?
I think that before we trumpet to the whole world the researchers’ “good news” interpretation of their study, it would be desirable to get answers to these questions first.
Main image shows the chair from Big Brother 14 in the UK, via Diamond Geezer/Flickr