Most people watching television have an interesting love/hate relationship with shows such as Jersey Shore, Survivor, the Real Housewives of New Jersey and so forth. Intended to portray how people go through their daily lives or participate in unusual competitions, reality television shows have become unlikely hits. They have also made media stars of people like Nicole Polizzi (a.k.a., "Snooki"), Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and others who would be largely unknown otherwise.
Yet many of the same television viewers who tune in often deny having any interest in reality television and tend to describe it as a "train wreck." Their reasons for watching can vary from simple voyeurism to genuine interest in helpful tips from shows such as Extreme Makeover Home Edition.
Whatever the reason for tuning in, a large proportion of television viewers watch one or more reality television shows faithfully. While media research has begun focusing on the impact these shows can have, studies have been largely limited up to now. According to one line of research based on Bandura's social cognitive theory, many people viewing reality television shows often use them as a model of how much of their own personal information to reveal to the world.
As an example, one study has shown that viewers of reality television shows are more likely to blog, participate in social networking sites, and generally share personal information and photographs online than non-viewers. Though the link between reality television viewing overall and social behaviour can be difficult to pin down, researchers have focused on specific genres including makeover-based reality shows (eg. The Swan, Extreme Makeovers) and dating-related shows (The Bachelor, Millionaire Matchmaker) and the way they shape how viewers see the world.
Studies of people who watch reality dating shows suggest that they are more likely than non-watchers to view dating as a game, to drink alcohol on dates, and to view age peers as being more sexually active. Similar studies of makeover reality show viewers suggest they are more appearance-oriented and likely to have positive attitude about cosmetic surgery.
In a new study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, two researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison examined the impact of "docu-soap" reality shows on viewer perceptions of the word. According to the study authors, Karyn Riddle and J.J. De Simone, this genre is a "documentary-style perspective on people's lives" which includes shows such as The Real World and Laguna Beach providing an apparently real-world glimpse of people as they go about their daily lives. To keep audiences watching, the producers of these shows typically include a "draw" by featuring media celebrities or people with extreme wealth to show viewers a side of life they might not otherwise see. The shows also include considerable relationship drama, whether real or scripted, including romantic relationships.
But do people who watch these shows develop a distorted view of social relationships? According to cultivation theory, the more time people spend "living" in the television world, the more likely they are to believe in the social reality presented on television. Developed by George Gerbner and Larry Gross of the University of Pennsylvania, cultivation theory suggests that long-time television watching "cultivates" how viewers perceive reality. Gerbner and Gross argue that "television is a medium of the socialization of most people into standardized roles and behaviors. Its function is in a word, enculturation."
While Gerbner and Gross did not feel that television watching necessarily increased violent behaviour, they did emphasize that it changed viewer beliefs and attitudes about the world. Heavy television viewers were more likely to develop psychosocial problems including shyness, loneliness, and depression. Television watching also serves to shape how people respond in similar situations. As a result, people who watch significant amounts of television violence were more likely to be desensitized to violence while people who watch romantic programming develop unrealistic ideas about real-life romantic relationships.
In the University of Wisconsin study, one hundred and forty five participants completed an online survey to examine their television watching habits and real-world beliefs. Most of the participants were female (73.8 percent) and reported watching up to twenty hours of television a week. While only a minority of the participants were regular reality television watchers, most had at least some exposure to shows such as Jersey Shore and Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
Study results showed a significant relationship between watching surveillance-type reality shows and real-world beliefs about human relationships and behaviours. Heavy reality-show watchers strongly overestimate the real-life occurrence of dysfunctional relationships and divorce. They are also more likely to place a stronger emphasis on sex in romantic relationships (sex on the first date, multiple sex partners, etc.).
Though the study results joins numerous other studies in reflecting the correlation between television-watching and real-life attitudes, it is difficult to prove that the type of shows people watch necessarily shapes their beliefs as cultivation theory suggests. Is there a "Snooki effect" causing people watching surveillance-type reality shows to develop attitudes as a result of the show? Or do people simply enjoy watching shows that reinforce their own pre-existing beliefs about the world? As always, correlation does not prove causation.
If there is a causal effect at work, then the impact that reality shows have on real-world attitudes and the tendency of young adults to model their behaviours on what they see on television can have potentially negative consequences. The influence is hardly one-way however since reality shows depend on the ratings that millions of enthusiastic followers bring.
The study's authors recognize that there are significant limitations to their research however. The participants were all young adult undergraduates who may lack the life experience to recognize the difference between television and real-life. Older adults with more life experience may be less vulnerable to what they watch on television. As well, more experimental research is likely needed to demonstrate whether there is an actual causal effect at work and testing a wider range of reality shows instead of focusing on a specific genre.
Still, "docu-soap" shows are likely a permanent television fixture given their popularity with viewers. As new shows are developed to appeal to a wider range of demographics, future researchers will have ample opportunities to explore their impact further.
So, is there a "Snooki Effect"? You be the judge.