What is the relationship between psychological dysfunction and reality television? I came across a recent Psychology Today post in which reality television shows like the increasingly popular "Jersey Shore" were cited as the epitome of mentally unhealthy living - not exactly an endorsment.

Specifically, the post stated: "Reality TV promotes the worst values and qualities in people--and disguises them all as entertainment. Reality TV has made the Seven Deadly Sins--pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth-attributes to be admired. Throw in selfishness, deceit, spite, and vengeance--all qualities seen routinely on reality TV--and you have the personification of the worst kind of person on Earth. Reality TV makes heroic decidedly unheroic values, characters, and behavior."

So, this may be a bit of an overstatement. The Jersey Shore characters might have numerous, even glaring social, emotional and cognitive weaknesses, and we as viewers might spot these deficits from a mile away and immediately categorize them as "off-putting," but this doesn't make them "bad" in a biblical sense. I might re-evaluate my opinion if one of the crew commits murder or even makes fun of a homeless person...but not until then  Ok, so now that I've spent a brief moment defending the Jersey Shore house, I want to jump on board with an attack on the mentally ill quality inherent in the show's dynamics (which everyone will now hear with a more open mind since I just defended them...)

The previously cited Power of Prime blog post suggested that "bad behavior" is what reality television encourages and reinforces. But, we have to be careful here. I'm not sure there is anything inherent in reality television that induces "bad behavior." I'm not even sure that "bad behavior" ensures continued success in the reality television industry.

But what budding stars of reality television like the Jersey Shore cast might THINK is another question entirely. As the Power of Prime post unintentionally perpetuated, there is an idea in our culture that "bad behavior" equates to "drama" and "drama" will garner increased fame and fortune. In other words, it is likely that the Jersey Shore cast believes that the more outbursts, confrontations and outlandish behavior there is on the show, the greater the hype, ratings and stardom.

Indeed, I would bet the farm that since the inception of "Jersey Shore" DJ Pauly D, The Situation, J-Wow and others having been giving themselves headaches wondering how they could possibly maximize their success. Now, one of the most robust findings in clinical psychology is the idea that thoughts shape emotions and drive behavior. So, if the Jersey Shore cast starts to think that ratcheting up the "bad behavior" will increase their money and notoriety, then that's exactly what will happen.

A quick glance at the first few seasons confirms the undeniable presence of "bad behavior." More often than not the Jersey Shore has resembled a war zone, with cast members misunderstanding each other, polarizing their views of one another, drawing battle lines, forming allinces and, of course, fighting. They initiate fights verbally and physically that, at times, become quite vicious. Most of these moments relate to each individual's own pathology (insecurities about being liked, difficulties regulating and reducing negative emotions, etc.), but the point here is that when J-Wow and Sammi scratch and claw at each other, or when Snooki and Angelina wrestle each other to the ground, part of what is fueling the fire is the thought: "as a reality star who wants to stay a reality star I am going to try my hardest to give the audience what I think they want."

This is an unarticulated motive, right. Nobody on the show is declaring their desire to stay in the spotlight - that sort of self-absorbed statement would not be very adaptive. And without such overt communication, the Jersey Shore cast never creates an opportunity to examine and perhaps debunk this tacit assumption about what we as viewers want. They fight, the show becomes more successful, and they attribute the success to the fighting. This is reinforcing. We'll probably see more fighting soon.

But there's a tragedy here. Although the cast seems to think we want "bad behavior," and although this idea is reinforced by higher ratings and cultural commentary, what if this is a misnomer. What if we don't really want to watch "bad behavior?" What if our definition of captivating drama is something else entirely?

I'd like to argue that what we really want to watch is not mental illness and bad behavior but mental health and adaptive, successful outcomes.

Let's look at the moment of highest dysfunction from the most recent episode. Arguably, this moment unfolded when Sammi punched Ronnie in the face for talking to J-wow.

We'll need some context (you can already see why cultural critics with an eye toward societal health would have a problem with this show). Sammi and Ronnie had been arguing about their relationship, as they are prone to do. A familiar pattern emerged in which Sammi flung slightly paranoid, unfounded accusations at Ronnie. The ever-insecure Sammi demanded to know if the ever-defensive Ronnie had been cheating on her (as he did once before). Problematically, Sammi could not present any actual evidence to support her fear. Interpersonally, they hit a brick wall. And for Ronnie this was one false accusation too many. He declared the relationship dead, packed her bags and went downstairs to remorsefully smoke a cigarette. Outside, he helped to diffuse his overwhelmed emotional state by talking to J-Wow. Sammi, still angry, hurt, and confused and still too unskilled to reduce and sort out these emotions, spies this interaction from the balcony. She channels all of her emotion into another irrational idea that probably sounded like something like this: "Ronnie has been sneaking around my back with J-Wow...I always knew I couldn't trust him....and now they are making fun of me together." Sammi ran downstairs, screamed at Ronnie, and demanded confirmation of her suspicions. Ronnie didn't know what to do so he kept his mouth shut (freezing in response to getting yelled at is fairly common).

A few minutes later Sammie punched Ronnie in the face and retreated.

A few hours later they were back together again.

Ok, so our animalistic nature may have been sucked into a few brief seconds of this exchange in the same way that we cannot look away from a fiery car wreck. But this is short-term satisfaction. After all, five minutes after glancing at the fiery car wreck we have either forgotten about it entirely or are sitting with a bad taste in our mouths, disturbed at our need to have looked in the first place. I would imagine we harbor similar feelings toward Sammi and Ronnie and, by extension, the show. In addition to feeling put-off, I would also postulate that we feel bored.

We've seen these same arguments and outcomes many times before. Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, believed that mental illness led to unresolved emotional states and that those states were liable to pop up time and again with increasingly frequency and intensity. He might agree that there is a repetitive, and familiar feel to the Ronnie-Sammi interactions. Things are getting stale. We can see it in the exacerbated faces of the other Jersey Shore cast members and we can feel it as viewers as we roll our eyes at the television screen.

It's also boring because there is no change. There is no growth, and we might vaguely sense that the main point has been missed. Sammi and Ronnie don't know how to talk to each other, to clarify their feelings, state their needs and make a game-plan geared toward increased intimacy and understanding.

Mental health would be much more exciting. What if the following scenario were to happen:

Ronnie comes to understand that his initial betrayal of Sammi in Miami was never properly dealt with, and it continues to fester like an open wound. What if he agreed that cheating on her (on national television, no less) was devastating and that lying to her about it for months, and standing idly by as Sammi misperceived the rest of the house's actions toward her was unforgivable. What if he took full responsibility for all this in a genuinely tearful confession? Further, what if he realized that he cheated on her in the first place because he failed to communicate his needs and how they conflicted with her needs. What if he decided to work on his tendency to shut down in an attempt to avoid conflict only to then get drunk, explode, and commit the very gestures that Sammi feared most? Wouldn't this be swell?

On the flipside, what if Sammi could see herself, and her role in the conflicts more clearly. What if she could see that Ronnie tried to do all that he could to regain her trust after the Miami infidelity, while also understanding the ways in which she pushed him away? What if she admitted that she needed help - that her sense of despair and alienation in the house was of her own making - not Ronnie's - and reflected deeper problems within her personality related to coping, identity and beliefs about others? What if she was willing to agree that Ronnie could not and should not be in charge of protecting her from her socially and emotinoally unskilled tendencies and the negative affect they produced? What if she stated in clear, emotionally-invested terms that he should not have to choose between her and the rest of the house, and that when he leaves her to do other things he is not "abandoning" her, but living a balanced, healthy life? Now this would be shocking!

This scenario, which seems further and further from happening, is much more captivating to me. And I watch the show not with the hopes of seeing a fiery car wreck of dysfunction but with the hopes of seeing positive change and happier, healthier living.

Please email with votes. Do you "Agree" or "Disagree" that mental health makes for better drama than dysfunction?


About the Author

Jeremy Clyman Psy.D.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., is a forensic and clinical psychologist.

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