"I'm still waiting for my happy ending. I thought it would be him." Ashley Hebert, the latest contestant on The Bachelorette, sobbed these words as Bentley, one of her favorites made an early departure from the show. As viewers already know, he was the token con-artist of the season. Viewers are also well aware that parts of the show are certainly scripted. Come on now, there was a guy wearing a mask for a few episodes. He proclaimed this would allow Ashley to judge him for his character rather than his looks. Nice idea, but that hardly mimics reality. Can you picture a Match.com profile of someone seeking their true love while refusing to upload a photo?
Yet we still watch these shows, myself included. It is shameful we know, but we still do it. One explication could involve an empathy factor. This may be much in the same way that research demonstrates the contagion of yawning is an empathic response (Platek, Mohamed, & Gallup, 2005). Many of us have experienced the pain of social rejection. As beings wired for empathy, are we identifying with and feeling for the heartbroken?
Dr. Naomi Eisenberger's award winning research on social relationships has led to a number of illuminating findings. Her work has demonstrated that the very areas of the brain that are activated when experiencing physical pain are also activated as a result of experiencing social rejection. Think about the fact that we even call it a "broken" heart. As far as the brain is concerned, this can be comparable to the physical pain of breaking bones, given similar neural activation.
On the flipside, Dr. Eisenberger's work also indicates that in studies where participants were subjected to moderate physical pain, those who looked at photographs of their significant other reported less pain than those who were asked to look at a photograph of a stranger or a chair. This was an extension of earlier work with similar findings where participants held the hand of a loved one when being exposed to painful stimuli. Such work clearly demonstrates in the great words of Celine Dion, the power of love.
Is it possible then, that when Ashley is curled up in bed, tears streaming down her face, seemingly doubled over from emotional pain, we truly feel for her? Is there more at play than the voyeuristic joy of watching dates in far-off destinations, and being drawn in by the catfights? Perhaps there is, or perhaps I'm making a far-fetched attempt at justifying my questionable television viewing choices. Either way, I'm just glad I now know what the masked man really looks like, and can finally rest easy tonight.
Eisenberger, N.I. & Lieberman, M.D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 294-300.
Master, S. L., Eisenberger, N. I., Taylor, S. E., Naliboff, B. D., Shirinyan, D., & Lieberman, M. D. (2009). A picture's worth: Partner photographs reduce experimentally induced pain. Psychological Science, 20, 1316-1318.
Platek, S.M., Mohamed, F.B., & Gallup, G.G. (2005). Contagious yawning and the brain. Cognitive Brain Research, 23, 448-452.