In the past few weeks, the news and water-cooler conversations were abuzz with all kinds of dramatic events. Oprah is leaving! Casey Anthony is finally on trial! And the Real Housewives of New Jersey, Orange County and New York are in session.

Can you believe the amount of coverage these people are getting on the airways and in press? Is the media playing to our vanity? Are we completely out of touch with reality outside of reality TV? No doubt marketing teams for major networks have worked tirelessly to figure out what "we the people" want to watch, hence the abundance of reality TV shows. But why do we want it?

My research with Steve Heine showed that television is a source of distraction form unpleasant thoughts, especially from realization of one’s personal shortcomings. When we feel bad we want to take our minds off the problem, and TV is a perfect vehicle for that. Another study by Melanie Green showed that people feel the same emotions and identification with real as with fictional characters, even if it is pointed out to them that the story is fictional.

I have to admit my own biases when it comes to television-borne cultural phenomena.  Growing up in the former Soviet Union, we had only three government-run television channels, and all information that came through the TV screen had been carefully manipulated to address the ideological needs of the Party. So we did not trust the TV too much. It was fake, and obviously fake. The real news you could get only from a trusted and well-connected friend. The TV was a source of entertainment, and friends were a source of news, comfort and support.  When Chernobyl nuclear station blew up, the TV said all is well, nothing to worry about.  But friends who were physicists said to stay behind closed doors and windows, and we trusted them instead of the TV.  When anti-reform plotters kidnapped Gorbachev and announced a Brave New World, the TV showed The Nutcracker. But friends got together and shared their fears and outrage. Together they marched on the streets of Moscow protesting, eventually overthrowing, the coup. We could count on friends, but not on the TV.

 When I moved to the U.S. I found the TV amazing. It was honest: they showed disasters unfolding in real time. They showed people complaining, protesting and opposing the government. It was like nothing I have ever seen. I never got over my fascination with the breadth and variability of American television.

 For the first couple of years I could not make a parallel judgment about the quality of American friendships.  Close friends I had in college were all from the former Soviet Union, spoke Russian, and practiced the same rituals of friendships that were native to our homelands. We did not watch television.

 Then college ended, and we moved on to graduate schools and careers in different parts of the country. At first we kept closely in touch, but with time contact became infrequent. The next relocation after graduate school reshuffled newly formed relationships, and I started to get the point. It would be impossible to have the kinds of friendships that I remembered from my adolescence, where families lived in the same city, often in the same apartment, for generations. Here in America life moved faster, and people moved farther, than friendship ties would stretch. People I love live hundreds, thousands of miles away, and I see them only occasionally. It would be unrealistic to expect a kind of relationship that frequent face-to-face contact, immune from relocations, would afford.

When I moved after graduate school to raise a family in the suburbs, I made new acquaintances, but not new friends.

 The TV offered a convenient outlet for my social void. I could not see my college friends on a weekly basis, but I could always count on a regular TV show for a little vicarious gossip and social interaction. At first I thought the American lifestyle was responsible for my TV-viewing, but maybe not entirely. Maybe if the TV had not been so readily available to satisfy my social needs, I would be more willing to take the risk of losing people. Maybe my new acquaintances would have turned into friends, had I not been able to substitute their company with the lower-maintenance company of TV personalities.

 It is so much easier to have a virtual relationship than a real one. The Real Housewives franchise offers a ready-made group of friends, each group with its own scapegoat, mean girl, smartass, and peacemaker. You learn details of their personal lives, you see firsthand their quarrels, and you can even “interact “ with them through their blogs. Detailed coverage of Casey Anthony offers a picture of someone corrupt and evil, someone we can safely cheer against with the satisfaction of having recognized a bad seed in our midst. We have a reliable, informed, good-humored and understanding friend in Oprah.  These people are there when we want to see them. If they get to be too much, we turn the TV off. If they seem not enough, we can log on to their websites, buy their books, watch reruns.

If we move to another town, they will still be there. If we travel for business, they will still be there. If we get divorced, or if our own network of friends breaks down, they will not take someone else’s side against us, they will still be there.

And when we meet our acquaintances, the ones we don’t let into our lives too deeply--and we struggle to find something to talk about—we have these virtual friendships in common. “Hey, did you see the latest episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey?” “Did you hear the latest on the Casey Anthony’s trial?” “Why do you think Oprah is leaving her show?“ The virtual friendships are a thread in our social fabric.

Reality TV is here to stay, and it is likely to become even more addictive. Our dependence on it has both good and bad sides. Virtual relationships have a lot to offer. But they are one-sided: virtual friends don’t care about us. So budget accordingly.

About the Authors

Clark McCauley Ph.D.

Clark McCauley, Ph.D., is the Rachel C. Hale Professor of Sciences and Mathematics and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College.

Sophia Moskalenko Ph.D.

Sophia Moskalenko is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (NC-START) and a consultant with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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