Fight! Fight! Fight!

Unscripted shows may bring out your inner combatant.

By Andrea Bartz, published on September 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Remote control covered in bandaids

There's no such thing as a boring reality TV star—after all, casting directors cherry-pick contestants to bring the biggest personalities to prime time. But the normal-people-cum-celebs aren't just outspoken—they're downright combative. Reality television contains more instances of aggression than silver screen dramas, comedies, and even soaps, according to a new study. And we're not just talking about Jersey Shore-style sucker punches: The Apprentice topped the list at 85 acts of verbal or relational aggression per hour.

Viewers love a good put-down or cat fight, right? Not quite: The research on aggression and reality TV, led by Sarah Coyne of Brigham Young University, found that hostility (which producers usually provoke) rarely brought laughs or approval from audiences. "There's this perception that we want to jam in as much aggression as humanly possible," Coyne says. "But the fact that it's not being rewarded tells me that producers are going over the top."

Reality TV violence isn't just harmless entertainment. Prior research from Coyne's team indicates that seemingly realistic behavior on the boob tube is more likely to be imitated than unrealistic behavior. (The study didn't include reality television, but Coyne suspects it's at the top of the true-to-life heap.) And a separate paper shows that watching relational aggression on TV (think Gossip Girl) makes people as relationally and (get this!) physically violent as those who view hand-to-hand violence (à la True Blood). Put two and two together, and mean-spirited reality TV is "a perfect storm of imitable aggression," Coyne says. Reality really does bite.