Why do we enjoy watching reality TV? It’s not what you think
Scientists discovered something surprising after they attended auditions, watched shows and interviewed fans.
When "Survivor" debuted in the spring of 2000, with a staggering 50 million people watching the finale of that first season, it ushered in a new era of reality TV. Over the next decade and a half, the genre has ballooned to more than 300 shows. The Emmy Awards, to be broadcast this Sunday night, now gives trophies in four different reality show categories.
Why are they so popular? Why do we enjoy watching them so much? Well, there's probably lots of reasons. But according to some scientists in Israel, we know at least one reason we don't: to watch other people get humiliated.
On reality shows like "Survivor," "Big Brother" and "The Bachelor," we often get a glimpse of people at their very worst. When you're stressed out, over-tired and being followed around by a camera crew, it's easy for contestants to do embarrassing things.
Dr. Jonathan Cohen, a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, studies the psychology behind our enjoyment of television. "The focus is often on losers, on people who are thrown off the island, or the guy who doesn't get the date, or people who have to eat bugs, people making a fool of themselves," he told From The Grapevine. "This is one of the main criticisms of reality shows, that it highlights people's weaknesses and the bad side of people. It gives license to what the Germans call schadenfreude, the desire to see people at their worst."
So Cohen and one of his students at the coastal Mediterranean university, Michal Hershman Shitrit, conducted a study to find out if watching other people get humiliated was indeed a reason we watch reality TV. For her Ph.D. dissertation, Shitrit traveled around to reality show auditions and surveyed potential contestants as they waited in line. They then conducted a study, which included 163 Israelis who reported on their own willingness to participate in reality shows and how they would react if family members were to participate. For their study, which was just published in the Journal of Media Psychology, the duo had participants watch a bounty of 12 reality shows.
What Cohen and Shitrit discovered was quite the opposite of what you would think: Viewers actually don't have a desire to see contestants be embarrassed. Indeed, our desire to watch is much more noble. We want to see contestants succeed.
"What we're suggesting is that people want to watch these shows because they like these contestants, not because we want to see them fail," he explained. "We like to see them overcome adversity."
Cohen's specific line of research is studying our friendships with TV characters. Our connections with any fictional character – from Harry Potter to Tony Soprano – are called "para-social" relationships. "We tend to develop relationships with these characters, and they develop more over time," Cohen said. His previous research, for example, looked at why we get sad when our favorite TV shows go off the air.
"What we're saying is that the motives for watching reality shows are very similar to watching narratives – watching movies or fictional things. This is a story and people like watching stories. And in stories, sometimes people fail and sometimes people succeed, and this is actually no different."
As for what's next, Cohen hopes to further expand his current research. "I think the question of why people enjoy watching reality TV shows is still open," he told us. "So figuring out what is the reason now that we know that this isn't the reason. But that's a lot more difficult."
Before ending our conversation with Dr. Cohen, we just had to ask: What's his favorite reality show? He said it's "Beauty and the Geek," a show where self-proclaimed nerds try to win over the affections of beautiful women. "It's very humorous," he added with a laugh. "And they don't take themselves too seriously."
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