Friday, February 12, 2010

The Schadenfreude of reality television

Several weeks ago I set myself the task of watching some reality television shows, figuring it would be a good American pop culture topic to consider here. The “several weeks” should give you a clue how it went.

It was, in a word, painful.

I don’t understand the popularity of the genre. Well, I do understand it from a business perspective—it’s so much cheaper to make these shows than one-hour, scripted, dramatic, let’s-get-caught-up-in-a-story shows. Why pay writers when you can shoot “real-life drama”?

Except that very little about these shows is real. Unless you consider what they say about us as humans—those of us participating in the shows and those of us watching them.

I’m not the only one thinking about this. The news program CBS Sunday Morning did a story on these shows and why viewers are drawn to them. (Not to mention why other viewers are repelled by them.) Commenting for the story was Martin Kaplan from the USC Annenberg School for Communication, who explained the appeal by saying, "[T]he producers and casting directors have figured out that we have reptile brains, and that there is stuff that we can't resist because of the species we are," he said.

It’s the same instinct that causes us to slow down and stare at car wrecks. But, think about it, aren’t you cursing all the people slowing down in front of you for creating a traffic jam? Can’t we evolve beyond the “reptile brain”?

So, some of the things I realized in my suffering through too many hours of reality shows:

The phenomenon has stretched the definitions of “reality,” “famous” and “star.” (A related point: even though our attention spans have shrunk to nearly nothing, the notion of fifteen minutes of fame has sadly been stretched to hours, weeks and even months.)

The editing process enhances everyone’s bad qualities. I can only imagine that at least a few of the participants have something pleasant, uplifting or reflective to say in a stray moment—but those bits apparently wind up on the cutting room floor. And this exaggerated portrayal of meanness encourages participants toward that sort of behavior so they can maximize their onscreen time.

The shows might actually be used in psychology classes to demonstrate a variety of principles. The shows illustrate the concept of observer effects, for example—the notion that the act of observing actually changes the subject being observed. Unfortunately, when it comes to reality shows, the observation seems to change the participants for the worse.

Or does it? Maybe they’re just loathsome to begin with, and that idea gives me the opportunity to use the word schadenfreude in a sentence. Watching reality shows allows viewers to indulge in schadenfreude, the taking of pleasure in the suffering of others.

That’s really what these shows are, but the reason viewers don’t feel guilty about enjoying the participants’ failures and meltdowns is that the shows cast participants who seem (and then portray them to be) arrogant and unpleasant and full of themselves. When the crash-and-burn arrives, it seems like poetic justice.

And this notion brings me to yet another psychological concept: actor-observer bias. The person being observed will most often point to external conditions to explain his or her behavior while those observing will usually chalk it up to the person’s character. This works perfectly for reality shows: all that bad behavior is explainable by saying the participants are nasty, mean, selfish, arrogant, petty, drama queens.

But why do we want to spend so much time watching such unworthy people?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Altered states

So many things happened last week that set me off to reading and thinking. I had planned to write about the State of the Union address, not just President Obama’s speech but others as well—the concept of the annual address. But then Howard Zinn died—now there’s a man I wish I could have met. And then J.D. Salinger died—a man many people wish they could have met or at least glimpsed. And suddenly my week threatened to be one in which I was chasing multiple tangents and losing myself in books. (Or in searches for books—I’m sure I have a copy of Catcher in the Rye around here somewhere.)

Not a bad thing to do, mind you, but it does present a challenge when there are other items on the list of Things To Do. So, since I spent more time reading (and pondering), I’ll have to spend a little less time writing this post.

Howard Zinn makes me wish I could call myself a historian. Not just a dabbler in history. He was no stuffy academic poking away in secret archives and musty libraries. He was busy digging into the world around him, making history even as he taught it. History was a jumping off place, so he could dive into the present and the future. He was a writer interested in action verbs. Just look at photographs of him—have you ever seen anyone so animated even in a still shot?

And J.D. Salinger died on the same day. How different the lives they lived! If they bumped into each other as they started their afterlife journeys, I wonder what they talked about. Zinn, who was so much out and about in the world, and Salinger, who kept so much to himself for so long.

It didn’t occur to me until I sat down to write that these two individuals illustrate the two conflicting halves of my personality and approach to the world. Part of me wants to jump in and mix it up and figure out how where we’ve been relates to where we are and where we might be going. And the other part would be perfectly happy to move to a secluded place and write for the love of it and deal with as few people as possible.

Fortunately, I wasn’t thinking about that last Wednesday night or I my mind would have been wandering to all sorts of uncharted frontiers when I was watching the State of the Union address. Instead I was wondering about the tradition of the address and how various presidents approached it.

In contemporary America, of course, we make big deal out of it. We make a big deal out of everything. The audience (thanks to television and other instant media) is bigger than in the past. The fallout—from the Republican response to all sorts of analysis (yes, look they’re wearing purple)—is bigger. And the speeches themselves are bigger.

President Obama’s speech was over a hundred paragraphs long. George Washington’s first State of the Union address was seventeen. Granted, he didn’t have to do much more than say, “Hey, isn’t this cool? We actually started a nation.” But he hit the same general topics that most of the addresses do: the economy, national defense, education.

Washington didn’t have to compare himself and his work to anyone before him; that was a definite advantage. He didn’t have to use the word “change” when everything was just beginning. And Congress hadn’t had time to get itself entrenched in fixed positions—most of those gents were probably still enjoying the novelty of their new jobs. This is what Washington said to them:

“The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed, and I shall derive great satisfaction from a cooperation with you in the pleasing though arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient, and equal government.” (Jan. 1790)

Can you imagine? I don’t think presidents or politicians in general use the word “satisfaction” let alone “cooperation” to describe their work. And “pleasing though arduous task”? We definitely hear about “arduous” tasks—they might even be described as “Sisyphean” if anybody understood references to Greek mythology any more—but rarely about “pleasing” ones.

Here’s an interesting site to explore State of the Union addresses through history. Language has certainly changed. So have attitudes, but you have to read between the lines for those.

Recycling some the messages from earlier addresses might not be a bad idea. Perhaps the language can inspire the attitude. By Washington’s second State of the Union the nation was facing conflicts on the frontier and concerned about growing tensions in Europe and how a war might impact US trade. The first President’s words to Congress then could apply to almost any issue—and it would be heartening to hear such a message.

 “In pursuing the various and weighty business of the present session I indulge the fullest persuasion that your consultation will be equally marked with wisdom and animated by the love of your country.” (Dec. 1790)

Sure, there’s lots of lip service paid to love of country, but how often do we see real marks of wisdom? Here’s hoping.