Saturday, December 13, 2003

Well, here it is...the social psych paper. What a stupid class.



How real is reality TV? Why is everyone obsessed with this “Reality” TV trend in the media which is startlingly devoid of realism? Why is there an ever-increasing number of reality shows on television?

Although each reality show itself may be short-lived, the influence of this reality-based genre will be seen for years to come. One recent newspaper article compares reality television to polyester clothing; synthetic and unfashionable, but popular and easy to wear. Polyester is still present in the fashion industry as well as in people’s wardrobes and reality television, like polyester garments, will still have a place in the popular culture of the future (Blackwell, 2003). Reality television is a sound investment for television producers; the programs are cheap to make and necessarily do not require well known actors to participate. The general public can relate better to the “Average Joe” rather than the average celebrity making casting regular people seemingly automatic. However, most of the average or “real” Joe-public type people cast for each program are not your every day member of society, but characters carefully chosen from thousands of applicants for certain marketable personality traits guaranteed to boost ratings . Mark Burnett, executive producer of the “Survivor” series, actually published a guide to survivor characters, indicating the 16 main types: “the entertainer, the leader, the flirt, the underdog, the professor, the zealot, the mom, the athlete, the wild and crazy girl/guy, the quiet one, everybody’s friend, the feral child, the introvert, the slacker and the snake” (Bouchard, 2001).

The term “reality tv” is in itself a misnomer as most reality programming is extremely contrived, thus making the hot new reality series of the week a lot less real than it appears to be. People having conversations and making dinner while being videotaped constantly, or 16 strangers stranded on a remote island participating in daily “reward” and “immunity” challenges are hardly real people in real situations (Pellerin, 2003). To quote the character “Morpheus” (Laurence Fishburne) from the Matrix: “what is “real”? How do you define “real”? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see then “real” is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. Even if something is clearly not real, people with suspend their disbelief and make it real; their interpretation of what they think is real actually becomes real. Reality television isn’t real at all. Most of the “real” parts are edited out and only the video clips that are the most interesting, appealing, and which are best for ratings are left in, giving the viewing public a very biased view of what is really happening on their “reality” program (Bouchard, 2001). Yet, people still tune in every week to keep track of their favourite (sur)real people in (sur)real situations engaging in this suspended disbelief to the point of being so engrossed in another person’s life that they begin to wallow in their defeats, revel in their successes and lose track of their own. But why do people, week after week, become so involved in reality-based television programs that clearly are not real? Why do people make themselves forget the unreal truth, buy into the fabricated reality of shows like “Survivor” and “Paradise Hotel”, seemingly more intrigued by the lives of these characters rather than their own (Pellerin, 2003), (Probyn, 2001) ?






If this “reality TV” phenomenon were to be thought of in terms of social psychology, aspects of it could be explained in terms of social comparison theory. People’s lives may seem very dull in comparison to what they see on television, and the reality TV genre is especially appealing since the characters are apparently real people cast in different situations; some “every day” situations, like in the program “Big Brother”, or extreme situations, as in “Fear Factor” or “Survivor”. The fact that the characters in the reality shows seem to be your average member of society, they are seen by the viewing public as someone they can identify with and relate to. As Lockwood and Kunda showed in their study concerning university students comparing themselves to a superstar student, if the superstar student is someone they could relate to and someone they could possibly be like in the future (i.e. someone they had hopes of emulating), their self-esteem is bolstered (Lockwood & Kunda, 1997).


Studies done by Buunk et al. illustrate both the positive and negative effects of people making not only upward (as in Lockwood & Kunda) but also downward social comparisons and may serve as a more in-depth explanation for society’s reality TV craze. In their 1990 paper, Buunk et al. conducted two different experiments to illustrate the impact of upward and downward social comparisons the affect of the person making the comparison. In the first study, participants were selected from a pool of cancer patients and interviewed over the phone with various demographic questions as well interspersed social comparison questions. It was shown that the upward and downward comparisons could have an either positive or negative effect depending on the individual. This study only concerns a select fraction of the population, cancer patients, and may not be universally applicable because factors such as uncertainty of their prognosis and changes in physical states may greatly influence their responses and thus it is only presented in summary.

The second (and more relevant) study was performed by recruiting married couples through a newspaper ad and asking them to complete a questionnaire about marital relationships (each partner alone, without consulting the other) through the mail. The social comparison questions asked how happy and unhappy they feel when comparing their relationship to others whose relationship is either worse or better than theirs. An example of one of the questions is as follows: “How often do you feel happy and pleased when you compare your own marital relationship with that of others who have a relationship that is worse than yours?” Four questions similar to this (happy/unhappy and worse/better) were answered using a 5 point scale ranging from (1) “never” to (5) “quite often”. The study showed that couples had a more of a “positive affect experience” for upward and downward comparisons than a “negative affect experience”. This means that each partner made more social comparisons (upward and downward) that resulted in them feeling better about themselves (or their situations) rather than social comparisons that make them feel worse. The study also shows that downward social comparisons leading to positive affect are more likely than upward comparisons in most “normal” situations, but the reverse is true for more stressful situations, like recovering from cancer (study 1).




The main attempt of the study is to illustrate that positive and negative affect can result from both upward and downward social comparisons and that one affect is not directly and discretely related to only one social comparison direction (Buunk et al, 1990).

The experimental results of how both downward and upward social comparisons result in positive affect can be used to explain possible reasons for society’s current reality TV craze. In order to make themselves feel better about their generally boring and dull lives, people may use different types of social comparisons – i.e. comparing themselves to people whom they can identify with and relate to make up for the excitement their own life lacks. For example, on the show “Big Brother” contestants are locked in a house under constant video surveillance and forced to experience the social dynamics and hardships of living under the same roof with many different individuals, as well as competing in weekly “reward” and “immunity” challenges. Although the continual video recording of every moment in the house is not an every day situation, viewers still may be able to relate to certain characters in the house and possibly compare that situation to what it was like for them living with certain housemates in university. Similarly, on the show “Temptation Island”, contestants endure various “tests of love and commitment” by being exposed to very beautiful and flirtatious people designed to match the ideals of the contestants and tempt them into cheating. Again, it is a very contrived and extreme situation, but people can make it real to themselves by comparing it to their own relationships and personal tests of commitment. Both shows contain characters which are almost idealised exemplars of average people, but still “normal” enough for most viewers to relate to. In this way, people can make upward social comparisons of their life to the situations on the reality show. By thinking that they could possibly be socially deft enough to fit into a large group dynamic (and perhaps win the big prize), or that they would be as true to themselves as the actors on television are when faced with tests of loyalty in their own relationships, causes people to feel comparatively better about themselves, and this boosts their self-esteem (analogous to the “positive affect experience” in the Buunk et al. studies).

People can also make downward social comparisons to achieve the same effect. Reality programs like “Survivor” and “Fear Factor” place people in extreme and very dangerous situations for large monetary rewards. Again, people can relate to the characters in each show by either identifying with someone on the show specifically or by hating/loving the same people on the show that other characters love or hate. In this case, however, the viewing public is identifying with similar people in situations that they are glad are not happening to them, or situations that have no chance of happening to them. This type of downward social comparison will also serve as a self-esteem booster by giving the viewer a sense of relief for never having to endure such terrible hardships (or utter stupidity for cash rewards) and feel better about their own lives. This is analogous to the social comparison question in study 2 (Buunk et al.) of “How often do you feel happy and pleased when you compare your own marital relationship with that of others who have a relationship that is worse than yours?” – people tend to feel better about themselves or situations when making downward social comparisons as well.




These studies are adequate at explaining only a facet of reality TV and its persistence in the media based on one idea – social comparison theory. It cannot, however, explain why people of all walks of life watch reality TV, not just those who feel bored with their lives and take pleasure in living vicariously through actors on television. People fairly satisfied with their lives must also enjoy watching reality television, as well as people who consciously or unconsciously make no social comparisons whatsoever when watching reality television. What then, are possible alternative explanations for why reality TV is still going strong in popular media not accounted for by social comparison theory?

Market research may be to blame, in part, for the allure certain reality TV shows like “Temptation Island”, “Elimidate”, “Paradise Hotel”, “Fear Factor” and “Dog Eat Dog”. Most, if not all of the contestants on these shows are very stereotypic portrayals of men and women. The women are all big-breasted and attractive; the men are all athletically-built and also good looking and, without fail, both sexes get into skimpy bathing suits for “water stunts” at some point or another in every show. Sex sells, and people enjoy looking very beautiful, yet ironically unrealistic characters of “reality” TV.

Another reason for the popularity and persistence of the show may just be the popularity itself. People will hear friends talking about certain television shows and wonder what they’re talking about, or will watch the show on recommendation from a friend of theirs. People will persuade their friends to watch these reality programs and the friends will conform to the rest of the group in order to join in on the next-day “water-cooler” type conversations about the previous night’s reality program. Of course, once the friend watches the reality TV show, they are hooked by the copious amounts of sex and conflict (among other things) on the show, as well as the relative ease of which they can identify with and relate to the individual characters. People often throw “Survivor Finale parties” where groups of people get together at a bar or a friend’s house to watch the riveting and suspenseful conclusion of their favourite series. People enjoy the atmosphere as well as being able to identify with and be part of the social group, even if they are not particularly interested in the television show.

Social psychology theories of persuasion, conformity, stereotyping (using sex to sell products), and cognitive dissonance (e.g. a person getting upset after finding out that the reality TV show they thought was all real and not staged was actually carefully orchestrated by a team of executives, and saying “well they’re real people like me, but just placed in fake situations in order to improve ratings” in order to justify their thirst for reality to themselves and relieve some of the dissonance) can explain many aspects of the dynamics of reality TV and the current media buzz surrounding it, but not all aspects. Some people have no ulterior motives for watching reality TV except for the fact that there might not be anything else on the set that is worth watching to them, and a lot of people will watch almost anything appearing on TV no matter how terrible it is which probably explains why there is a great deal of sub-par programming available to people of less discriminating taste.






In conclusion, reality TV is not real. People make it real by refusing to examine all the facts and by engaging in suspended disbelief – ignoring evidence contrary to what you believe and being caught up in the reality of the television program, movie, or novel they happen to be experiencing at the time. In believing in the reality of the shows they are watching, people can identify and relate to the characters portrayed on the individual programs and use either upward or downward social comparisons to make themselves feel better about their own unexciting lives.

The ideas of social comparison theory cannot explain all reasons why many different sorts of people with different self-appraisals of the excitement in their life (i.e. not everyone thinks their lives are boring) watch reality TV. Other factors may explain why so many people continually fixate themselves upon their TV sets with enraptured anticipation as to who will be the next castaway from “Survivor Island” include: the tendency for people to conform to a group (watch because everyone else does), to be subject to persuasion (watch because a friend said it was good), or to be a victim of sex-stereotyping marketing (watch because you enjoy seeing beautiful people).

Reality TV may be around in the media and pop culture for years to come, as long as the TV executives can stay one step ahead of the population and continually feed viewers with surreal and increasingly varied versions of “reality”, combined with large quantities of sex, conflict, comedy and reward challenges.






“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination”
John Lennon

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