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Reality TV in the Spotlight

What is the real human cost of this entertainment genre?

Russell & Taylor Armstrong, Real Housewives

The Armstrongs in happier days

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills show is due to open for its second season this Fall, with the Bravo TV website offering the following plot summary. “Last but certainly not least, Taylor and her husband Russell have always put business before pleasure, but it's had a major impact on their relationship. As Taylor struggles with a loveless marriage, she acts out against the other women and falls on the shoulder of her friend Dana for support...”  We know now that Taylor had recently filed for divorce from Russell and was living apart from him. Today’s news reports suggest that, following the suicide, Bravo is, thankfully, planning on editing out parts of the upcoming show the wake of Russell’s death.  

In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit that I am somewhat of a reality television aficionado. I have eagerly devoured many seasons of the Real Housewives in their various geographic locations, as well as Top Chef, Project Runway, Survivor’s early episodes and the first three Apprentice seasons.  Being hardworking and self-disciplined in my own life, I enjoy the escape into fantasy and melodrama at the end of the day, as well as the rags to riches stories, over the top diva antics, glamorous lifestyles, and mean girls (and boys) shenanigans. As an expert on life stress, emotion and human behavior, my brain gets a workout trying to explain these theatrics in the light of psychological theory and research.

Taylor Armstrong, Real Housewife of Beverly Hills

Taylor Armstrong's life was not what it seemed

It is important to point out as well that most reality television is a manufactured reality. Shows such as The Apprentice edit thousands of hours of filming into 15 hours of programming. Producers can easily create exaggerated caricatures of likable and unlikeable personalities. All they need to do is edit out any footage that doesn’t gel with the stereotype. Bad moments may be highlighted and compensatory good deeds or mature actions removed. Potential participants are required to provide wide-ranging consent that includes consent to being publicly humiliated.

Taylor Armstrong, Real Housewife of Beverly Hills

Taylor Armstrong's life was not what it seemed

What does research say about reality television  and the human psyche?  Although there are only a handful of studies with sufficient numbers of participants to take the results seriously, they do highlight some dark psychological motives of both viewers and participants. According to a (2004) study of 239 adults by Drs Reiss and Wiltz, published in the journal Media Psychology, the number one motivation that distinguished reality tv watchers from non-watchers was the desire to feel self-important or have elevated social status. The next most important personality motivator was a desire for vindication or vengeance.  Reality tv shows are stories of winners and losers, based on talent or social standing. In the beginning, everybody starts out at the same place, but, as the storyline progresses, some rise to the top while others are tearfully banished or become the brunt of social humiliation and exclusion as retribution for their bad behavior. 

Dr Drew Pinsky of Celebrity Rehab fame and his colleague have also conducted some research showing that reality show participants may be especially high in narcissistic personality traits. Individuals high in narcissism tend to be superficially charming, often good-looking, manipulative, deceitful, and lacking in empathy. They may believe they are entitled to special status or privilege. They may lack insight and act out with anger and rage when others do not accord them the respect and status to which they feel entitled.  These types of individuals may be most prone to act in dramatic, impulsive, or grandiose ways that audiences find entertaining. Perhaps it is human nature to elevate the most attractive and/or arrogant among us then watch with baited breath as their character flaws lead to their downfall. This is the essence of tragedy - a dramatic form that has been around for thousands of years.

Russell Armstrong was a millionaire venture capitalist living the high life, when he began to experience financial problems and could no longer afford the lifestyle of the other multi-millionaire cast members. He began a downward spiral that included many potential suicide triggers, including  being the subject of a lawsuit, alcohol use, domestic violence, and marital separation. Unfortunately, he was also facing the immediate prospect of his fall from grace being broadcast to the world during the upcoming Housewives season. A person with narcissistic tendencies would be especially vulnerable to feeling humiliated and negated as a person by the unfolding of these events. In the wake of this tragic loss of life, do we all need to do some soul-searching as to the price we, as a society, pay for our entertainment?

Melanie Greenberg is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Mill Valley, Marin County, CA. She is also a researcher, author, and national speaker with expertise in life 
stress, relationships, mind-body health, & effects of society and media on human behavior.

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Melanie A. Greenberg, PhD, August, 2011. All rights reserved.

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