Reality TV has spun out of control lately.
Jon and Kate (of TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus 8") have been on every cover of US Weekly for more than a month now, with the latest story of his "cheating" and her "mean" behavior. Spencer and Heidi Pratt, who gained fame on MTV's "The Hills," freaked out in the jungle in NBC's "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here," with Spencer hitting another contestant and screaming to Jesus in the sky. After Al Roker of the Today show (of all people) dared to ask them whether they were proud of their behavior, they accused Al of misogyny and Spencer threatened violence.
Not that long ago, celebrities were famous for a reason - they starred in popular movies, say, or sold a million albums. It helps to have some narcissism when you're performing in front of others, probably because it dampens the usual embarrassment with evaluation most people feel in these situations (see Harry Wallace and Roy Baumeister's great Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article on this). So -- not a shock -- Mark Young and Drew Pinsky found that celebrities scored higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) than a control group (Journal of Research in Personality, 2006).
But who were the most narcissistic celebrities -- was it the movie stars, the successful musicians, the stand-up comedians? Nope, it was the reality TV stars. This makes sense - who else would want fame so much for its own sake? They just want to be famous and don't care why.
Movie star celebrities, of course, aren't immune to haughty behavior (witness Tom Cruise calling Matt Lauer "glib" on that same set of Today show stools). But many reality TV stars take narcissism to a new and very scary level -- Spencer Pratt, who lashes out at any perceived slight, being exhibit A (see Brad Bushman and colleagues' definitive paper in the Journal of Personality this year on the link between the combination of high self-esteem and high narcissism leading to heightened aggression after an insult).
So what does it matter that a few narcissistic reality TV stars are out of control? Reality TV is very popular, and it is supposed to show "real life" and real behavior, without the façade of fictionalized dialogue and storylines. But because reality TV stars are so narcissistic, it's really a showcase for narcissistic behavior. To many older people, it's funny. But for many younger people -- the main consumers of the reality shows on, say, MTV -- it shapes their view of the world. Narcissism begins to seem normal. This may be one of the reasons many young people seem to take outsize narcissism in stride, and don't see it as a big deal.
In some cases, such as "Jon & Kate Plus 8," the show itself and the fame involved may have led to the problems. Kate, certainly an assertive personality, had to have some nurturance early on when she was the primary caretaker to her twins and later carried 6 babies. Jon seemed like your average laid-back guy. Maybe their marriage would have been in trouble anyway -- 8 kids and lots of snipping aren't a great combo -- but there is no doubt that fame exacerbated the trouble. Fighting with your spouse is one thing, but bitter fights in the pages of national magazines are much worse. And when you really are special -- after all, you're famous -- it probably makes it that much harder to make concessions in a marriage.
Reality TV is entertainment, and admittedly Spencer & Heidi and Jon & Kate are entertaining. The bigger question is this - what are they teaching our kids?