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?

1 comment:

  1. It's a pretty sad comment on the state of modern US culture.
    (Of course - the phenomenon has become global now.)