Fake pleasures of reality TV

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 September, 2003, 12:00am

TV audiences worldwide are interested in seeing people squirm, fight, fall in love and break down, just like audiences everywhere always have, from disciples of the cheapest soap opera to Shakespeare buffs. Now, producers of TV pulp need to keep developing new angles to engage increasingly sardonic, pop-psychologically savvy audiences. The flimsiest premise will do, especially if the formula includes watching other people jump through emotional hoops. Hence, the reality show format, with its vaguely psychological pretext of setting up 'experiments' by which audiences can witness revealing demonstrations of real human behaviour in unlikely but camera-friendly locales.

Reality shows share some of the psychological features of pulp fiction, except page-turners demand active reading and imagining. They are shallow skits compared with the personality cults that drive sitcoms. They lack the expertise and discipline of a football game and have none of the content of a news broadcast or documentary. In fact, they spend the minimum time on informing the audience about anything outside the close study of flash-in-the-pan human emotions - the feistier and sexier the better.

But isn't it all harmless fun? Well, let's look at the psychology of watching 'reality': the first curiosity, of course, is that nothing on television is remotely real. You have to go to internet livecams to find approximations of that, in all its boring detail. The situations in reality shows are meticulously prearranged. It would be quite straightforward for an organisational psychologist to help profile candidates to make up harmonious groups. But that is the last thing producers want. Instead, they choose a mix of participants that will attract and repulse viewers, arouse their sympathy or simply to maximise the chances that fur will fly.

Participants either understand the implicit rules involved in being chosen and act accordingly - that is in an unnaturally, one-dimensional, rather dramatic way. Or careful editing means they are cast in a particular role, like it or not. The participants' payoff for possible character assassination is the direct or indirect benefits to the ego and bank balance that television exposure can bring.

Reality shows are not intended to be uplifting, of course. They are entertaining and slightly addictive - we know they are trash. But what makes them so? Is it because they are voyeuristic, as many critics claim? Not in the least. For one thing, a real peeping tom decides when and what he (rarely she) clandestinely watches and the activity depends on the victim's ignorance that she (seldom he) is being watched. The television version provides neither. Instead it serves up a very different sort of satisfaction. Or more accurately, it stimulates an appetite for safely stage-managed naughtiness or - more often - the visual equivalent of gossip, which it then goes on to only partially satisfy.

That is why millions go on watching. So, if they are not voyeuristic, are they so bad?

Yes, says former American Psychological Association president Philip Zimbardo, because they foster the worst in human behaviour. He became famous when he concocted his classic Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, prematurely halted because volunteers acting as inmates and guards became dangerously identified with their adopted roles. He was the brains behind the more recent The Human Zoo, a sort of reality television version of his experiment, in which he orchestrated demonstrations of classic studies about human behaviour. Opinions are split about that project's authenticity as a psychological experiment. He objects to reality shows such as Survivor because they promote 'the wrong human values'.

It is undeniable that when we watch reality television, the highlights basically amount to tacky demonstrations of human weakness. There is nothing of value to ruminate upon, except perhaps a cheaply won sense of moral superiority on the part of the viewer.

The trouble is that the moral superiority is an illusion. Viewers are not just scoffing bystanders. They are implicated in their choice of viewing. Each reality show, sitcom, documentary or football match is an active choice of experience. Each chunk of TV programming sends the viewer to bed with its own tiny, characteristic psychological communique. This is important because for many people, choosing between channels is one of the very few unequivocally self-determining acts they have left in a typical evening.

Junk viewing is as bad for the spirit as junk food is for the waistline.

Jean Nicol is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and writer everydaypsychologist@yahoo.com