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Who Watches Reality Shows, and Why?

Take this quick quiz to see if you're really a reality show voyeur

Reality shows, the staple of network and cable television alike, clearly appeal to a broad range of viewers. Having gotten off to a relatively slow start with such shows as Survivor and American Idol,  there are now enough varieties to satisfy every taste and special interest. You can coo at Honey Boo Boo or pick from the scrap heaps with American Pickers, depending on your mood and your favorite diversion. Entire stations, such as The Weather Channel, build their viewership around the vicissitudes of climate. 

It was while watching a tornado report on a network news show that I got the idea of finding out whether a rash of reality show voyeurism is in fact sweeping the country, if not the world. The reporter, having spent the night chasing tornados, said that her work was more than "weather voyeurism," insisting that by covering the impending disaster about to strike in Oklahoma, her station’s efforts were partnering with emergency notification systems. I have no doubt that she was correct, and clearly in the aftermath, news teams most likely did serve valuable functions. However, the question remains as to why local and national news programs (and an entire channel) devote so much attention to this ultimate of reality show experiences. Why are we so mesmerized by watching the terrifying reality of someone’s neighborhood, if not entire town, becoming devastated? What keeps us glued to the weekly escapades of chefs, dancers, singers, babies, and outdoor adventurers?

The answer to this question comes, in part, from an article published in the journal Media Psychology. Turkish psychologist Lemi Baruh set out to investigate the predictors of heavy reality show television watching from measures of voyeurism, including television voyeurism, and a measure of social comparison.  Theoretically, people may have voyeuristic tendencies (i.e. trait voyeurism) in which they enjoy any chance to see “what they cannot otherwise see” when “the curtains are left slightly open.” In other words, reality TV viewers may just like backstage views of many situations in life, which in fact reality shows often portray (e.g. Dancing with the Stars). Baruh distinguishes this type of nosy voyeurism from sexual voyeurism, specifically the kind associated with a paraphilic disorder. In “pathological” voyeurism, the individual has an exaggerated need to see people of the other, or perhaps the same, sex while they are naked, undressing, and engaging in sexual activity. Not only does the desire to snoop on others as a trait-like quality involve activities other than sex, but the subject of the gaze is aware that he or she is being watched and, in fact, derives enjoyment (and a decent paycheck) from being watched in whatever private activities the show covers. People with the sexual form of voyeurism are not satisfied by watching reality shows.  Moreover, part of what they seek is the power over their targets, because they are not aware that someone is watching them.

Apart from voyeurism, another appeal of reality shows is the chance they provide for us to compare ourselves with other people involved in situations that we may wish we could be in, or are glad we’re not. In other words, we might all like to have the opportunity to blow away the audience listening to our karaoke performance, but we wonder what it’s really like, behind the scenes, as contestants prepare through weeks of arduous effort. Alternatively, while watching programs that cover tragedy or disaster, or even just travel discomfort (as in the former A&E show “Airport”), we can temporarily feel good that we’re not in those situations ourselves.  Watching Pawn Stars, or its more refined cousin, Antiques Roadshow, we may discover how to find valuable treasures in our own storage cupboards.

We may also feel that we can learn important coping skills should such situations involve us as victims.  For example, the ABC News program 20-20 aired a show called In an Instant that included survivors of various accidents and disasters, showing how you could maximize your own chances for survival in a similar situation. More generally, social comparison involves finding out how to gauge your own abilities, personality, emotions, or other important characteristic that you would like to check against those of the people who are really going through the situation that you’re watching.

Baruh recruited a U.S. sample of 550 respondents, approximately 50% female, with an average age of 47.  The majority of participants had a high school education or more and other than being perhaps more highly educated, represented a cross-section of Americans in terms of race/ethnicity, religion, and political orientation.  The survey asked respondents to rate the frequency of watching 28 programs on major national networks.  Many of these shows still air today, such as Survivor, Extreme Makeover Home Edition, America’s Most Wanted, and the Amazing Race.  In addition, respondents rated the frequency of watching other TV programming, including dramas, sitcoms, talk shows, soap operas, and news programs. Unfortunately, Baruh didn’t TV talk shows where people often air their darkest secrets such as the notorious Dr. Phil, nor did he count news programs, which would have excluded such Weather Channel programs as Deadliest Space Weather. I would have classified these as “reality” shows as well. Voyeurism seems to be part and parcel of the appeal of Dr. Phil on TV.  Coverage on the Weather Channel of earth-ending apocalypses might also count as opportunities for people to rehearse their coping skills or engage in social comparison.  In the end, Baruh counted as fictional programming Desperate Housewives, CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, Arrested Development, Without a Trace, Young and the Restless, and Days of Our Lives.

Let’s move on, though, to see how to rate yourself on these voyeurism and social comparison measures. To score trait voyeurism, Baruh asked his respondents to read hypothetical situations in which they could accidentally witness people involved in an activity without being seen.  One example involves receiving from the photo lab a set of pictures showing a couple skinnydipping.  The respondents then were asked to indicate what they would do on a scale of 1 (immediately stop looking) to 7 (try to see as much as they could).  Even though there were only 8 scenarios on this scale, people responded remarkably consistently across the board.  If you’re going to do more than peek at someone’s nude photos that you accidentally come across, you’re also likely to read the entire contents of a stray email message that makes its way to you. The average score was 22 out of 56, and people with scores of 44 or higher were at the upper end of this scale.

Participants then rated their tendency to watch television to fulfill voyeuristic desires. Rate yourself (from 1 for strongly disagree to 7 for strongly agree) to see how much you agree or disagree with these items:

  1. I enjoy watching television programs that help me get a peek into people’s private moments.
  2. I like television programs that show a side of people that I would not normally see.
  3. I enjoy watching television programs that provide access to things that people try to hide.

The average among the study participants was 10 across all 3 items, with the highest score for item 2. If you scored above 6 on that item, and above 4 or 5 on the other 2, you are in the upper range of scores for TV voyeurism.

Next, participants rated whether they like programs that are sexually arousing an appealing. The majority were right at about the midpoint of the 7-point scale, with the upper end at about a 6 or above.  The tendency to watch television for voyeuristic purposes in general was similar, then, to the tendency to watch television for the sexual arousal they provide.

Finally, rating themselves on social comparison, participants indicated how much they compared themselves to others, pay attention to how other people do things, and evaluate themselves according to how much they’ve accomplished compared to other people. Scores on these items were slightly higher than the scores on the voyeurism scale, with the average rating amount to about a 4 out of 7.

Now you know how the scoring was done, let’s move on to find out what Baruh discovered about the reality show fanatics, keeping in mind that news programs were not included in this category.  As Baruh predicted, the biggest reality TV watchers were people high in the personality trait of voyeurism. However, TV voyeurism also factored into their viewing patterns. In fact, neither type of voyeurism alone was as powerful a predictor of reality TV watching as the two combined.

Furthermore, Baruh found no evidence to suggest that the sexually-motivated voyeur becomes a reality TV fanatic, as this type of voyeurism did not predict reality TV watching. On the other hand, when it came to fictional programming, the trait voyeurs a bit turned off.  Soap operas, whether of the daytime or prime time version, attract instead the sexually motivated variety of voyeur. I wish that Baruh looked separately at talk shows, news and weather programming, but maybe he’ll be publishing another study on that topic alone. Also, although social comparison seemed slightly related to fictional TV watching, it was not significant any longer when voyeurism was taken into account.

Let’s go back and see where you fit into this picture, and what it means about you. Take stock of how much time you spend watching reality shows, and why.  You’ve already scored yourself on the voyeurism scales, and can tell where you rate compared to the average person. Do you feel that these shows are satisfying your need to learn the secrets of other people’s lives? Do you find that sharing the glory, pain, and every emotion in between of the people portrayed on these programs meets unfulfilled needs in your everyday life? Conversely, take a look at your sexual voyeurism score. Are you hooked on the ups and downs of your favorite characters, and if so, does looking at your tendency toward voyeurism seem to be involved in this fascination?

Fortunately, the escapism that TV provides, whether of the reality or fictional variety, most likely will not get you into trouble or end up causing you to part with your hard-earned cash. However, if you feel that your need to consume a steady diet is on the high side, it may be worthwhile to consider other diversions and uses of your desire to learn more about people’s secrets, problems, and joys. Turn your interest in people to ways that you can offer help, through charity work, becoming a support group member, or even getting trained in working as a volunteer at a shelter.

There are plenty of real-life dramas to engage your mind and emotions, and by channeling your interests  you can benefit not only your own chances, but those of others, to find fulfillment.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 


Baruh, L. (2010). Mediated voyeurism and the guilty pleasure of consuming reality television. Media Psychology, 13(3), 201-221. doi:10.1080/15213269.2010.502871