What Reality TV Can Teach Us About Human Cooperation

Selfish rule breaks in “Too Hot To Handle” reveal how people manage dilemmas.

Posted Apr 30, 2020

Asad Photo Maldives/Pexels
Source: Asad Photo Maldives/Pexels

If watching reality TV shows is one of your guilty pleasures, you are not alone. Programmes such as Love Island or Love Is Blind appeal to human curiosity and draw in huge audiences. This has yet again become evident following the recent release of Netflix reality show Too Hot to Handle. First aired in April, the show became an instant audience favourite.

What is Too Hot to Handle?

At first glance, Too Hot to Handle appears to be your average dating show. A group of near-naked singles and serial one-night-standers are sent to a tropical beach resort. Cameras follow them as they flirt with other contestants, do yoga or weight-lifting in tiny swimwear and generally showcase shocking levels of promiscuity. However, there is one slightly unusual condition: Contestants are instructed to focus on building meaningful emotional connections and forego any short-term flings. As an incentive for complying with the programme’s aims, a generous sum of prize money is promised to the winner—the contestant whose emotional growth throughout the programme is deemed most significant.

And there’s another little twist: Any type of physical intimacy is strictly off-limits. In fact, all contestants are closely monitored to enforce this rule, and each time someone engages in forbidden sexual activities, money is deducted from the winning prize sum.

Given the purposefully selected cast, who seem to change romantic partners more frequently than most people change their underwear, it comes as no surprise that rules are broken often and enthusiastically. As a result, the initial sum of $100,000 is halved within only a couple of weeks. What is of particular psychological interest, however, is the contestants’ response to the financial loss and their subsequent treatment of non-cooperative rule-breakers. Indeed, their reactions offer fascinating insights into human behaviour and cooperation.

The tragedy of the commons

Let’s not pretend that the producers of Too Hot to Handle designed the show to be of any educational value. However, through their choice of the financial incentive structure they happened to re-create a famous choice dilemma, which decision theorists refer to as “tragedy of the commons." The tragedy of the commons is a type of social dilemma, where decision-makers are tempted into selfish action even though mutual cooperation would yield a better outcome for the group.

As an illustration, consider the following classic example. Several farmers compete for the resources provided by a public meadow (the “commons”). The meadow offers free food for their sheep, and the more sheep each farmer sends to graze, the higher their personal benefit will be. The meadow, however, can only accommodate a limited number of animals, and if its maximum capacity is surpassed, the grassland will degrade. Once the meadow withers, future use becomes impossible and all farmers inevitably suffer the consequences. A dilemma exists because each decision-maker has a strong incentive to act selfishly (by sending more sheep to the meadow), while the farmers as a group are better off if all cooperate by restricting their use of the commons.

On Too Hot to Handle, a similar dilemma becomes apparent. Reality show contestants have to decide between selfish acts of forbidden sexual activity and cooperative restraint. While rule-breaking might offer immediate pleasure and gratification (not to mention audience attention and extra airtime on the show), it also reduces the everyone's chance of a decent prize at the end of the show.

The tragedy of the commons is an important concept because it underlies many serious choice problems with global stakes. A key example is that of climate change. In the context of environmental protection, individual decision-makers face a simple decision trade-off. For example, when running small errands, they have may have to decide between using the car and cycling. Using the car could be considered a selfish choice. While it benefits the individual through its convenience, it contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases. This ultimately aggravates the problem of climate change, which is likely to have catastrophic consequences for everyone. Indeed, society would be better off if all people ditched their cars for non-essential journeys and switched to the cooperative action of cycling.

How can we achieve cooperation?

To protect common goods such as the meadow, the TV prize money or a stable climate, an important question is how we can encourage cooperation when the temptation of selfish choices is likely to lead people astray. This is why studying the tragedy of the commons in different contexts can provide us with valuable insights into human decision making. Even a reality dating show such as Too Hot to Handle might offer unexpected lessons on interpersonal cooperation, and these might apply to global problems such as climate change.

So let’s take a look back at some of the developments on the programme. The first rule break occurred when Australian bad boy Harry initiated a kiss with Canadian model Francesca. The other contestants were informed that money had been lost and many of them were rightfully angry, demanding the culprits face up. Harry and Francesca came forward, but a discussion ensued about which individual was to blame for the kiss, with Harry and Francesca both pointing fingers at each other. Francesca was furious about the blame and scorn of her peers. Indeed, she decided to retaliate by secretly kissing best pal Haley and blaming the money loss on a different couple. The two defectors were enjoying the atmosphere of mutual suspicion and mistrust following their secret kiss. Still, their smugness received a quick damper when the production team revealed them as culprits for the second loss of money. Indeed, no further acts of vindictive rule-breaking occurred after this instance of public exposure.

While the show’s developments tell a clear story about the emotional maturity of its contestants, they also shed some light on a key factor in social dilemmas: reputation. Rule breaks were met with anger and social exclusion by the rest of the group. Harry, Francesca and Haley all suffered the consequences of a negative reputation. Vengeful acts of defection occurred, but immediately stopped when the culprits were exposed. During the rest of the show, physical intimacy continued to cost the group money. However, in most cases, the respective couples apologised and justified their actions with a genuine emotional connection, which appeased their peers and helped them to retain a more positive reputation.

The importance of reputation
The significance of reputation has been confirmed across many psychological experiments and real-life examples. Reputation is a powerful factor that has the potential to both deter selfish actions and encourage cooperation. However, reputation can only be effective if choices are transparent and the identities of cooperators and defectors publicly known. Too Hot to Handle illustrates this fact, when secret rule-breaking is used as a strategic act of vengeance. If other people’s choices are unknown, reputation no longer matters and the temptation to defect increases. This has important implications for how we handle real-life dilemmas.

If we want to deter selfish actions, we need to make sure that people know who’s responsible. In the context of climate change, there is a need to publish more data on individuals' and companies' recycling levels or use of fossil fuels. The effectiveness of such approaches is demonstrated by cases of public shaming, where environmental polluters are held accountable for selfish choices. Similarly, increased transparency is likely to be responsible for the trend of greener company choices in an attempt to boost reputation. 

Who would have thought that a dating show could hold such important lessons for life?