Insight Therapy

Psychologically informed reflections on how we interact.

The Meaning of Reality (TV)

What does reality TV say about reality, really?

I don't watch much TV. When I do, I mostly channel surf. Channel surfing, like ocean wave noise, soothes because it requires no commitment or concentration. It provides a relief from the commitments and concentrations that mark the work day.

Channel surfing has other advantages. While I can't tell you the plot line of any particular show, I know something about the TV landscape as a whole; the color palette; the thematic preoccupations.

I have noticed, for example, that those ‘reality' shows that pack the TV schedule come in two main formats. One involves people who compete for some prize while showing off a skill or dealing with a novel situation. The other depicts people who are just followed around, having the minutiae of their lives aired out in public.

The contestants, I find, also fall into two groups. One is made of ‘performers'--aspiring artists and actors desperate for a stage and assorted odd characters instructed to act up, carnival sideshow-style; those dominate the judgment and novelty shows.

The second, more interesting group is the so-called regular people--housewives, families, high school buddies--who possess no unique skill, no thespian claims, no glaring oddities. These are just asked to be themselves, rather than compete or perform.

Psychological research, of course, has been staging ‘reality shows' for years. Placing people in novel situations and asking them to deal, carrying out fly-on-the wall naturalistic observations of daily life, and judging people's skill levels are staple psychology research designs. And anyone involved in this field knows their inherent fascination. Look at the grainy videos of Zimbardo's prison experiment, Milgram's obedience studies, Mischel's marshmallow kids; watch the infants attempting to negotiate Ainsworth's "strange situation" and you'll see compelling human drama.

One difference is that in research, the participants do not become stars, public icons, role models, or fodder for water cooler conversations; they usually remain unknown by design, to protect them, and the research. The star of research is not ‘self,' but ‘truth.' In reality shows, ‘self' is the star while ‘truth' is inconsequential; the subjects do become known, by design. In fact, getting known is the participants' prime motive.

And that's the other reason these shows are watched: they reflect the cultural dictum that being on TV elevates you, marks you as special and important.

This TV-Special Merit link has a long history, of course. Historically, however, the causal arrow led from Merit to TV. First, you acquired some special value, talent, or achievement in the world; then, by virtue of that accomplishment, you were elevated, via TV, onto the public pedestal. Being on TV rewarded achievement. This causal structure is natural and organic. When things are in proper order, quality rises to the top. The fastest swimmer gets to climb the medal stand. Appreciating this logic is part of our nature.

But our nature is complex, and reality TV reflects another aspect of that architecture. After all, laboring in the world to gain special skill or achievement is hard and time consuming. It's a burden. And part of our nature is to seek relief from burden. People are always looking for easier, quicker ways to get the good stuff. And you don't have to be super clever to imagine that the TV-Special Merit connection may work both ways; that instead of laboring to become special and thus get on TV, you can get on TV first, and have that make you special.

This latter route, which is currently gaining in America, represents a cunning, even rational, short-term strategy, akin to that used by the ambitious ‘helicopter mother' who does her daughter's homework in secret, to boost the daughter's chances of getting into Harvard. The mother knows that just as super ability causes admission to Harvard, so does being at Harvard make you appear super able, with all the attendant benefits.

But in the long run, this strategy is risky, because it results in one of two bad outcomes: either the audience realizes the ruse and abandons the show, having wasted precious time and energy for naught (the girl fails at Harvard and flunks out, but not before thwarting the dreams of another, truly deserving applicant); or the audience buys the ruse and takes the mediocrity on offer as truly special, thus narrowing its own horizon (the girl's half-baked ideas are taken as gospel by a culture mesmerized by her Harvard credentials).

You can see variations of the same principle at work throughout the culture. For example, competence naturally breeds self esteem. However, educators and psychologists in the 80's and early 90s, particularly in California, responded to research results showing the competence-self esteem link by concluding that self esteem can cause competence. A whole movement flourished trying to teach children self esteem, in the hope that they would become successful as a result. This of course ended in a waste of time and money, and a betrayal of children. Putting someone on the medal stand is unlikely to turn her into a good swimmer.

The same dynamic can be seen underlying America's troubled relations with food. The work of our biological architect, natural selection, made good things sweet. Our cultural food architects have realized they could exploit the sweet-is-good natural link and make people buy a lot of really bad stuff by just making it sweet. So we are now consuming a lot of bad sweet stuff. And by the time the ruse is discovered, we already weigh 350 pounds and our hearts have exploded.

Which of course makes us ideal contestants for the next big reality show, where the winner of all the challenges gets a heart transplant surgery while the losers are cast away to die.

Live, on TV, it's Survivor: Mt. Sinai!

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

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