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August 7, 2013 at 3:33 PMComments: 1 Faves: 0

"Viewer Discretion Advised": The Reality of Reality TV

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

I have enough trouble keeping up with my own life, much less the lives of those Kardashians. In fact, I don't even have cable television. Still, the notion of reality TV is intriguing.

Surveying the reality programming is almost overwhelming - Cake Boss, Jersey Shore, Biggest Loser, Real Housewives, Dancing with the Stars, and (my nurse's favorite) Duck Dynasty are but a few.  These shows seem to permeate our very existence. It makes me wonder if this phenomenon, a reality in and of itself in America, has changed our behaviors and perceptions. 



Some reality shows definitely exhibit the "look at me" persona, drawing upon voyeuristic and narcissistic tendencies. The term narcissism derives from the Greek mythological figure Narcissus who was incredibly beautiful and knew it.  As the tale goes, Narcissus was attracted to his own image in a pool. Unable to draw himself away, he died. The psychological version of the term refers to self-centered behaviors involving the need to be adored and self-adoration. 

In regards to the spotlight on these behaviors in shows such as Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, and Keeping up with the Kardashians, the question arises as to whether they will prevail among viewers. Beyond speculation, a small research study was conducted, giving questionnaires to fans of these shows as compared to a control group.

While actual narcissism was not more prevalent among these fans, scoring for "special person" perception was increased. This indicates a viewpoint of having power over others or being more special than others. But this still leaves uncertainty as to whether we are seeing the horse or the cart. In other words, we do not know if people with these traits are attracted to these shows or if the shows bring out the behaviors. Nonetheless, the shows glamorize such behaviors, making them seem as traits that are desirable as opposed to undesirable.


Ultimately, spending too much time watching others leads a comparison - what have I got compared to what they have. Reality TV hails bachelors and bachelorettes who do not get up and punch in for a job. In fact, their job is picking from a number of attractive potential mates. It also hails socialites who have no problems paying their bills. I can't help but think that any self-comparison would be akin to a put-down. Who's life wouldn't seem hum drum and maybe even hopeless by comparison. This could potentially add to feelings of depression.


Bored TV

Self-comparison could potentially also lead to feelings of anhedonia, defined as the inability to experience pleasure. Things which once were, or would usually be, enjoyable are dull and boring. Life is a flat line emotionally, with little pleasure or motivation. 

I see reality TV in this regard a bit like having dessert with every meal. Before long, it is the expectation, and a meal without dessert is, by comparison, a disappointment. Seeing the lives of those in the spotlight, climbing in the passenger's seat to their exciting lives, could potentially increase the threshold of enjoyment in real life. Furthermore, trying to reach this threshold for personal enjoyment may be detrimental, expending resources that are not there (i.e. credit card spending).

Benefits of Reality TV? 

My point here is not to bash reality TV as a whole. While I do believe there are should be some cautions with this growing trend in programming, there are definitely some positive qualities as well. First, the shows add a new angle on entertainment, highlighting people as they are, highlighting talents and gifts. Some offer strategy and exhibit good-natured competition, as in The Amazing Race. Others are incredibly inspirational such as The Biggest Loser which has led countless people be become more healthy.

In Conclusion

Like it or not, reality TV is a growing force. Like all things, too much misuse or misinterpretation can have detrimental effects. As the cliche entertainment warning goes, "viewer discretion advised."

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1 Comment

  • The Voice is pretty awesome!

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