If you've ever watched The Bachelor franchise, you are familiar with the sacrosanct Rose Ceremony, a brutal mate elimination round that will either reject your favorite lovelorn, soon-to-be social media fixation, or spare them until the following week.
No one knows the fates of these perfectly coiffed contestants, except for the bachelor or bachelorette (and their producers). Astute audience members might correctly identify frontrunners and favorites who are deemed safe for weeks on end, but as the bachelor’s harem of potential mates begins to dwindle, predicting who will take home that coveted final rose—not to mention, a free Neil Lane engagement ring and, oh yes, a new life partner—becomes more and more challenging.
If The Bachelor sounds like a game show to you, that's because it is, and an extremely popular one at that. Since 2002, the year The Bachelor first aired with Alex Michel, the series has enjoyed consistently high viewership and ratings, eventually spawning multiple spin-offs: The Bachelorette, Bachelor in Paradise and coming Winter 2018, Bachelor: Winter Games. These sister shows repurpose star-crossed castoffs to give them another chance at love, or humiliation, or both. Steve Carbone, who runs one of my favorite blogs, RealitySteve.com, has called the franchise the “gold standard of reality dating shows. Nobody’s even close.”
These days, more than eight million viewers tune in each week to witness which contestants are clearly not there for the right reasons and which are better at hiding the fact that they aren’t. And as of Season 21, which starred the fourth-time’s-a-charm Nick Viall, I have been one of Bachelor Nation’s most loyal devotees.
As someone who writes about relationships, I’m not sure why it took me so long to gain entry into Bachelor Nation. I have never been squeamish toward the idea of finding love on television. For years, I followed Bravo’s The Millionaire Matchmaker, which starred third-generation matchmaker Patti Stanger in her quest to help mostly unlikable wealthy people find their soulmates. I even continued to watch when the show was later downgraded into WE tv’s Million Dollar Matchmaker which replaced the cast of unlikeable, unknown rich people with unlikeable, unknown “celebrities.” I was also a devout follower of a string of VH1 “celebreality” dating shows dating back to the early 2000s, where charismatic has-beens like Flavor Flav and Brett Michaels attempted to find lasting love by pitting their fanatical, inebriated love interests against each other in a rented mansion.
It suffices to say that neither Flav or Michaels was able to find love, despite being given three separate opportunities to do so. Or that Patti Stanger has suspiciously modified her “99 percent success rate” to one that is “extremely high.” And, that of the 21 bachelors given a chance to find their true love on primetime television, only one has managed to walk down the aisle with the final rose recipient. With a slightly better track record is The Bachelorette which has celebrated three marriages so far and Bachelor in Paradise, with two (legitimate) ties of the knot.
The lack of lasting love in these shoes should not surprise us. When’s the last time it worked out with a paramour after having a handful of conversations with them over the course of two months, and while he was courting all of your roommates?
Still, as naive as it might sound, deep down, I believed the franchise was, at its core, about finding your life partner—and I believed that was the draw—that is the draw—for many of us in Bachelor Nation. The reality of course, after watching three back-to-back seasons is that love has nothing to do with why my eyeballs have been glued to the screen every Monday night for the last several months.
The real reason? Capital D-R-A-M-A: During Rachel’s and Peter’s excruciating breakup in The Bachelorette, which even made me cry; when filming of Bachelor in Paradise abruptly shut down due to allegations of sexual misconduct between two contestants, which were later unfounded; or one of many confrontations between “emotionally intelligent” Taylor and somnolent sexpot Corrine in Nick’s season of The Bachelor. Any of these moments would qualify.
As the franchise has progressed over the years, what has become painfully clear is that it’s pain, not-so-much love, that sells. And this pain is not just limited to the bevy of real-time humiliations, breakups and catfights readily caught on camera either. Each season tries to exploit as many childhood sob stories from contestants as possible. Over a romantic candlelit dinner in Nick’s season, orphan Kristina tearfully recalled a childhood so destitute that she had resorted to eating lipstick, whereas Dean from Rachel’s season, showed obvious shame and discomfort as he revealed how his family never recovered from his mother’s death when he was just a teenager. Ironically, these two managed to find love (albeit a fleeting one) in Paradise.
Advertisers know it’s near impossible to turn away or change the channel during these riveting scenes. It’s the same reason why so many of us are unable to avoid staring at the scene of a terrible car crash. It’s not that we’re bad people, in fact, it’s exceptionally human to gawk in the face of the grotesque.
“We have a morbid curiosity for drama as it allows one to escape from their own drama, their own life,” explains therapist Erin Asquith. When we witness someone else’s suffering, it allows us to imagine what it would be like if it happened to us, she says. It creates empathy and helps us to “compare our drama to external drama,” which can also provide relief. “This enables one to see that their drama is not too bad, helping one feel more at ease,” she says. During the Rose Ceremony—the dramatic crux of each episode—is a spotlight on the losers sent home and their unhinged, ugly-cry reactions. Their goodbyes are mini car crashes we simply can’t look away from. While watching these exits, it’s impossible to think anything other than,“Thank God, that’s not me.”
A compelling drama has always been able to pull at our heartstrings. Just thinking about that scene in Sophie’s Choice where Meryl Streep’s character must make an impossible choice between saving one of her two children still makes my heart stop. Even not-so compelling drama, like the Dean, D-Lo, and Kristina love triangle in Bachelor in Paradise has the ability to hook me.
That our brain doesn’t do a very good job of discerning between thought-proving and mind-numbing drama may be explained by our evolutionary need to seek out pleasure, according to Elesa Zehndorfer, who writes about drama addiction in her book, The Physiology of Emotional and Irrational Investing: Causes and Solutions. She explains humans are “trained to seek out drama because we experience a rush of dopamine and adrenaline when we encounter it…The more novel it is, the greater the effect.” The brain doesn’t care about the source of the drama, whether it is elicited by an Oscar-winning actress, an attractive 26-year-old man-child juggling two women...or even pornography, which floods the brain with both dopamine and adrenaline in the same manner. As long as the content is titillating, the brain will react.
Dopamine, a chemical often associated with the brain’s reward center, “is what conditions us to do the things we need to do,” according to Big Think writer, David Hirschman. Our dopamine levels become elevated whenever we perform an action that is necessary for survival, such as eating or having sex, and pretty much any other time we do something that feels good. Dopamine also generates a feeling of giddiness, excitement, and euphoria, which may explain why, in addition to tempting us to tune into next week’s rose ceremony, so many people get hooked onto dopamine-stimulating drugs.
Adrenaline is another hormone that is released during intense fear, anger or excitement, often precipitated by “fight or flight” moments, according to Shahram Heshmat in his Psychology Today blog. While adrenaline junkies are typically portrayed as extreme sports enthusiasts or those who work in risky professions, you don’t need to come face-to-face with danger to enjoy the rush. Witnessing a car crash from the safety and comfort of your own driver’s seat provides the same jolt of adrenaline you might get from bungee jumping. The same goes for watching a scary movie or a heated fight between two would-be suitors unfold on your television screen.
Beyond our biology, however, is another reason why we humans are so attracted to drama, says Dr. Vijay Ram, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, “such events allow people to see the consequences or outcome of certain actions they are unwilling to do themselves.” As we observe other people navigate through difficult and painful experiences—including uncomfortable social confrontations and other risky, social activities, we can secretly live vicariously through them. Which means, we can all fantasize being Corrine that one time she attempted to seduce Nick in his hotel suite in nothing but a trench coat. Of course, she would later be vilified and slut-shamed for her behavior. Thankfully, not us. In other words, trashy reality television enables us to be as shallow as we want to be without suffering any repercussions
Which is why, after 21 successful (if mind-numbing) seasons, this brilliantly addictive formula isn't going anywhere. Who’s tuning in for season 22 of The Bachelor in January?