The psychology behind watching reality TV

Why are some invested while others tune out

Photos from The Bachelor, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Jersey Shore.
Photo illustration by Josh Granovsky

With the 22nd season of The Bachelor coming to an end, I got to thinking about the stark contrast of opinions people hold about shows of this genre. Why do some people have such a strong desire to watch reality TV shows while others absolutely hate them? What makes people hold such opposite perspectives? Research suggests there may be several reasons why some people are obsessed. 

Reality TV tends to follow people who are just like us as they navigate some sort of competition (think Survivor, Big Brother or American Ninja Warrior) or who are thrust into unique social situations (Jersey Shore or The Bachelor). Unlike regular broadcasting, it gives us a way to look into the lives of people we can relate to as they’re tasked with an abnormal task that challenges their strength and character. 

A research team led by research psychologist Zhanna Bagdasarov investigated the role of voyeurism that plays into a person’s TV watching preferences. Voyeurism is defined broadly as a disorder that causes a person to gain pleasure from watching unsuspecting individuals. The investigative paper presents findings that prove people who score higher on a voyeurism scale are more likely to prefer watching reality TV. Since these are often people that aren’t too different from us, it makes it intriguing to watch what they do on these shows. 

Reality television gives us a way to look into the lives of “normal people”, allowing for access into their daily activities — access we’re not typically privy to. 

Others have posited that the desire to watch reality TV stems from fantasies about easily acquiring fame. On competition shows like Big Brother and The Bachelor, it’s not uncommon for contestants to gain celebrity status after the show airs. Many participants go on to start blogs, have their own podcasts or simply enjoy life in the limelight — seeing the desire for fame and fortune easily acquired by reality TV stars understandably explains the draws for a large portion of the genre’s audience.

Lemi Baruh, a Turkish psychologist, published a paper in 2009 stating that voyeurism and social comparison tendency were positively correlated with the preference to watching reality TV. However, like most studies, more work always needs to be done, so Baruh dug deeper and recruited over 500 U.S. participants, asking them a series of questions about their personalities.

Baruh’s list included questions about voyeurism and the tendency of viewers to compare themselves to others. The respondents were then asked to rate the frequency of which they watched each television program, both reality and fictional, out of a list of 28 options. 

What Baruh found was after controlling for demographics, voyeuristic tendencies alone are strongly correlated with the consumption of reality TV and that social comparison tendencies are no longer related. It’s clear that, just as media continues to change, the reasons why we consume media are changing too. 

With the divided research and the obvious more work that needs to be done, it’s clear that human beings are complicated and there are many reasons why we do the things we do. So, whether you like watching reality TV to laugh at the contestants or because you like to fantasize about being famous, just make sure you’re able to separate what you’re watching from everyday life.  

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