In honor of the current season of ABC’s “The Bachelor” and based in part on some comments indicating reader interest, I’m submitting a couple more brief excerpts from the first chapter of my book. To set the scene, for those of you who did not read my initial posts, in the first chapter of my recently published book, Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples, I invented an imaginary panel of unethical Psychological consultants who advise the producers of ABC's The Bachelor on how to manipulate people into false feelings of love.
My goal in deconstructing elements of The Bachelor is to illustrate the powerful pull of factors we often overlook during the initial “cocaine rush phase” of falling in love. There is much more in the first chapter of my book, but, for your entertainment and possibly edification, here is some additional commentary on the show. I’m not saying that ABC has retained such a panel of advisors, but if there were, then here is what they would advise:
First, the hired panel of experts would make sure to select a cast with unusually good looks. To achieve this aim, they would probably circulate pictures of potential contestants among the employees of ABC television and might even post the faces of the show’s applicants on one of those very classy “rate-my-face” programs you can find online.
They would be aware that individuals in the very top tier of physical attractiveness would likely feel increased pressure to conform to sex-role stereotypes of the active male and passive female which is helpful because it wouldn't do to have multiple aggressors in a throng of 25 women. (For the sake of added drama, however, they might include a couple of “firecrackers.” The panel would know that such women probably signed on in the hope of securing 5 minutes of fame, but it would create a lot of exciting drama to have a few very narcissistic, egotistical women in the group to collide with some of the other contestants.)
Of course, this slippery panel of experts would privately be aware that possessing extremely good looks puts people at risk for some unfortunate psychological challenges. For example, the most beautiful people are often the most insecure of all. Like a person who is flush with material wealth, the possessors of great beauty often struggle with questions about why people seek them out and what people are really after when they form relationships with them. They often ask themselves whether their friends are true friends or whether they are attaching themselves—by way of an entourage—because of their obvious physical beauty.
ABC’s consultants would also be aware of research demonstrating that physical beauty does not often result in good self-confidence. I've often thought about this finding because it seems counterintuitive. Specifically, a strong line of research shows that physical beauty paves a smooth path in life—beautiful people are given opportunities that others don't have, and are let off the hook more easily when they behave badly (“don't hate me because I'm beautiful”). It's hard to say this any better than the incandescently brilliant Julian Fellowes (author of Downton Abbey) does in his novel Snobs:
“Of the four great gifts that the fairies may or may not bring to the christening—Brains, Birth, Beauty, and Money—it is Beauty that makes locked doors spring open at a touch. Whether it is for a job interview, a place at a dining table, a brilliant promotion or a lift on the motorway, everyone, regardless of their sex or sexual proclivity, would always rather deal with a good-looking face. And no one is more aware of this than the Beauties themselves. They have a power that they simultaneously respect and take for granted."
Great beauty is a form of social capital, yet when one considers that others respond to it as such, one realizes that great beauty may put people at higher risk of failing to develop strong character in some cases. No doubt, some people are truly beautiful inside and out. For others, however, if rewards in life come fairly easily, the hard work of managing disappointment and coping with one's own emotions may be somewhat stunted.
While not true of every beautiful person, the most beautiful among us are more likely to have a “spoiled child” element in their personalities—that is, an expectation that their wishes will be granted with little opposition, resulting in an acute coping crisis (an adult tantrum) when their desires are not met. But, no matter—the bottom line for our TV consultants would be that in the initial phase of any new relationship, beauty enhances the appeal of a love match. So, a cast of unusually good-looking people they must find. This is especially important for the central character of the drama, the bachelor himself.
Let’s say that the hired experts, based on these attractiveness traits, have located a chiseled specimen of a man who is so hyper-masculine that he bears a remarkable resemblance to Disney’s cartoon rendition of Brom Bones in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. They would then conceal his identity from the female contestants, leaking only brief, one-dimensional phrases designed to heighten his desirability in the eyes of the women. For example, they might suggest that producers mention the words “Harvard graduate” or “doctor” or “pro football player,” or any similar phrases that identify other stock characters in the uber-masculine array.
The shallower the bachelor’s character, the better—the producers will need their chosen stud to be capable of making statements like “I've got the ring and I'm about to propose to someone tomorrow, but I'm so confused right now about who that will be.” The consultants would also specify that any details about his background or character should be largely concealed, allowing the female contestants to speculate themselves into a froth of excitement about a man they really know nothing about at all. To spectators of this phenomenon, they will actually appear to catch "Bachelor fever" in an emotionally contagious, groundless, breathless spell of adoration for a total stranger with impressive pectoral development.
Instead of allowing contestants to know anything of substance about the bachelor’s true character, the producers would instead emphasize his raw masculinity. If he is well built, then the plans for the show should include multiple opportunities for him to strip off his shirt and flex his muscles. If he is athletic, they should suit him up like Bear Grylls from the TV show Man vs. Wild and have him lead the ladies through some hair-raising adventures that cast him in the role of the supreme protector. That way, it will be more likely that when the women he dates feel physically protected by him, they will also feel emotionally safe with him without any good basis whatsoever…