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How Reality TV Preferences Reveal Personality

The difference between living vicariously and voyeuristically

Personality and Voyeurism: More Than Meets the Eye

Even die-hard news junkies periodically break from their steady diet of information and current events to take a peek inside the world of reality TV. Whether it's Mob Wives or some version of The Real Housewives, you can usually catch an eyeful of drama, from a heated argument at a nightclub to flipping over tables at a dinner party.

If you prefer other reality genres, such as cooking or real estate, instead of flipping tables, you might watch flipping pancakes in a contest or flipping houses for profit. Yet does any of that make you a voyeur? It depends on how broadly we define voyeurism — a term that is consistently the subject of much debate.

Reality TV: Vicarious Living or Virtual Voyeurism?

Reality television provides an easy (and legal) way to peer into the lives of others. Over the last few decades, reality TV has become a staple of modern entertainment in households around the world. The broad spectrum of reality TV programs currently available demonstrates that people watch for many different reasons.

Although many reality TV watchers seek to live vicariously, most understand the dual role of the participants as actors — which, depending on the genre of reality show, can generate exaggerated drama or artificial performance to spice up the program.

Clinical voyeurism, classified as a paraphilic disorder, requires viewing unsuspecting individuals. Yet because in common parlance the term voyeurism is defined broadly, researchers have studied the extent to which voyeuristic tendencies predict social behavior, including watching reality TV.

You Are What You Watch: Personality Traits and Viewing Patterns

In “I Am What I Watch: Voyeurism, Sensation Seeking, and Television Viewing Patterns” (2010), Bagdasarov et al. sought to investigate the role of voyeurism in preferred television show consumption.[i] They found that people who score higher in voyeurism preferred reality TV. They also cited a prior researcher's observation that reality TV was created to satisfy voyeuristic inclinations.

Comparing reality TV to other programming, Bagdasarov et al. noted that although both reality TV and crime/action programs contain high voyeuristic content, people high in voyeurism prefer reality TV, as opposed to crime/action programs.

Research by Lemi Baruh entitled “Mediated Voyeurism and the Guilty Pleasure of Consuming Reality Television” (2010) found a positive relationship between voyeurism and watching reality TV — mediated by a penchant for the voyeuristic use of television.[ii]

Baruh argued that a common form of voyeurism which may predict reality TV watching is “trait voyeurism,” defined as “seeking safe (and often reciprocal) ways of having access to information and/or experience that would be otherwise (and normatively) inaccessible, and something enjoyed opportunistically (rather than compulsively).”

Baruh also emphasizes the need to distinguish between the voyeuristic use of television and enjoying sexual content on television — two separate concepts, which Baruh says prior research has conflated within the context of voyeuristic television use.

Reality Television Satisfies Social Stimulation

Watching reality television certainly does not mean you are a voyeur in a sexual sense. Bagdasarov et al. note previous research that found people with low levels of personal interaction and mobility were more likely to view reality TV not only to meet voyeuristic needs, but also to satisfy the need for companionship.

Also consider the types of people who appear in reality TV programs. These characters are not adult entertainers. Nor are they always “regular people.” Stiernstedt and Jakobsson in “Watching reality from a distance: class, genre and reality television” (2016) found that reality television presents an over-representation of the social elite and upper class.[iii] They note that this segment of the population appear much more on reality TV than they do in other genres of entertainment.

And regardless of the demographics of the participants, there is a big difference between watching and spying.

The View From the Eye of the Beholder: Public Versus Private

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: 5th Edition (DSM-5) describes Voyeuristic Disorder (302.82) as requiring, among other criteria, “recurrent and intense sexual arousal from observing an unsuspecting person who is naked, in the process of disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity, as manifested by fantasies, urges, or behaviors” (Emphasis added).

Reality TV viewers recognize they are not watching covert surveillance footage, and reality TV participants acting in front of a Hollywood camera crew are hardly unsuspecting. (Hopefully, they are also not naked, disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity.)

Yet as this genre of entertainment continues to captivate the public, researchers continue to explore the reality that there is more to voyeuristic tendencies than meets the eye.


[i] Zhanna Bagdasarov, Kathryn Greene, Smita C. Banerjee, Marina Krcmar, Itzhak Yanovitzky, and Dovile Ruginyte, “I Am What I Watch: Voyeurism, Sensation Seeking, and Television Viewing Patterns,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 54, no. 2 (2010): 299-315.

[ii] Lemi Baruh, “Mediated Voyeurism and the Guilty Pleasure of Consuming Reality Television,” Media Psychology 13, (2010): 201-221.

[iii] Fredrik Stiernstedt and Peter Jakobsson, “Watching reality from a distance: class, genre and reality television,” Media, Culture & Society 39, Issue 5 (2016): 697 – 714.