What do Brett Michaels and Julius Caesar have in common? At first blush, nothing. Whereas Michaels conquered stadium rock, Caesar conquered entire civilizations. Michaels dons his head with scarves, whereas Caesar preferred a lite leaf setting on his cranium. Yet these two men share a great deal of similarity. They both inflict pain on others publicly.
People have many basic motivations that play strong roles in shaping their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Many reality television programs involve situations in which one particular motivation-the need for positive and lasting relationships-is thwarted. People vote others off the island ("Survivor"), kick unwanted roommates out of the house ("Big Brother"), or, in the case of Mr. Michaels ("Rock of Love") and other celebrities in search of love (Flavor Flav, Tila Tequila, and several others), reject potential romantic mates from lavish rental homes. Millions of viewers watch with bated breath as the host informs the unwilling participant, frequently with pregnant pauses, that they have been rejected.
Julius Caesar did something similar with gladiatorial bouts. Just like the basic desire to have nice and lasting relationships, people have a natural instinct to have physical safety. Caesar organized a forum in which a multitude of viewers watched gladiators try to avoid mortal injury. Crowds quieted to a hush as Caesar gave the final order to deliver the final blow or to grant the gladiator a stay of execution. Sound eerily similar to reality TV?
The similarity between reality TV and ancient bloodsport is compounded when considering neuroscientific and psychological evidence showing quite a bit of similarity between socially painful events like rejection and physical pain. At a purely linguistic level, people tend to describe their rejection experiences using words commonly associated with physical pain. Rejected people say their feelings were "hurt," that they felt "crushed" or even "broken-hearted." This similarity extends beyond mere metaphor. Experiencing rejection activates the same brain regions that become activated when people experience physical pain. And severe exclusionary experiences cause humans and non-human animals to experience physical numbness in the same way as severe physical injury does.
The link between social rejection and physical pain creates further problems for reality TV. A growing body of literature demonstrates that exposure to physical violence causes people to experience aggressive emotions, to think hostile thoughts, and to behave aggressively. Playing violent video games, listening to songs with violent lyrics, or watching violent movies all lead to these sorts of aggressive outcomes. If the body responds to social rejection in the same manner as physical injury, then witnessing another person experience rejection might have a similar impact as watching a person experience unwanted physical pain.
The purpose of this post is not to condemn reality TV as the bane of all media. Others have done that. Viewers should realize what goes into the media they're consuming. Reality TV thrives on the need for social connection. Thwarting that need through rejecting contestants illustrates an outcome that people love to watch, but an outcome that they're fundamentally motivated to avoid. And so the next time you see Brett Michaels, Jeff Probst from Survivor, or Julie Chen from Big Brother begin the sequence that will ultimately result in another person's demise from the show, ask yourself why you're drawn to watch-and whether the pain is worth it.