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If you’re mindlessly flipping through the channels, chances are, you’ll curiously pause upon a reality TV show. You’ll think to yourself, “oh that person’s beautiful.” or “what’s happening here?” or “I’ve seen that person before!”. All of these reactions are by carefully by design.

Of people 18 and older 79% percent of the population (in the US) watch reality TV. That’s understandable when you consider just what qualifies as a reality tv show. What is shocking is that only 30% of that 79% have a positive perspective on the genre and what’s scary is how negatively it can alter us. So what is it that makes us so obsessed with watching it despite ourselves? We delved into the psychological studies surrounding reality TV; What intuitions producers are channeling to keep your eyes glued and the specifics of studies on those of us that watch.

What you Watch Matters

There have been a large number of papers written about reality TV measuring different facets of viewers. Some studies have delved into the [negative] effects on body image, risk taking, sexual development, brand perception, and aggression amongst others.

Scene from The Real Housewives of New Jersey

One such paper delved into the differences between watching a reality show that is benign with aggression, take ‘The Little Couple’ for example – and faced it against other shows that may feature more aggression, such as ‘The Jersey Shore’. Instances like a Jersey Shore member calling another fat qualified as aggressive to give readers a better understanding. The study found that:

“In addition to potentially increasing aggression due to exposure to relational aggression within the program, a second characteristic of surveillance reality programs that may lead to increased aggression involves exposure to narcissistic behavior. Celebrities have higher levels of narcissism than the general population, and reality TV celebrities have the highest levels of all.”

– Bryan Gibson, Jody Thompson, Beini Hou, and Brad J. Bushman

Not only did the paper find that yes, watching shows that feature aggression make watchers more aggressive (both physically and verbally for both men and women equally), but may also make them more aggressive depending on the narcissism of the cast. They found that these results are directly related to the shows that we watch. Anything from ‘Desperate Housewives’ to ‘Locked Up’ would qualify within these results.

Who Watches What Reality TV?

Other studies have focused more on what in our individual nature drives us to watch certain shows. Graduates of the Ohio State University once categorized 16 motives for watching reality tv. These were:

Social Contact, Curiosity, Honor, Family, Independence, Power, Order, Idealism, Social Status, Vengeance, Eating, Romance, Physical Exercise, Acceptance, Tranquility, Saving. - Steven Reiss
, James Wiltz

The research indicated that “The more real-ity TV shows a person liked, the more status-oriented was the person.” making the motive for ‘Social Status’ the highest driving factor. This was followed by… vengeance.

Social Life as a motivation has also played a large role in not only this studies’ findings – but others such as Dr. Carole Lieberman’s opinion that,

Over time, we come to see the folks portrayed on the screen as friends. We identify with their struggles and triumphs. It’s much less time consuming to take in a half an hour television show than to connect with a friend.

Dr. Carole Lieberman

Different reality shows offer different experiences of escapism. From feeling like you’re socializing, to feeling like you’re experiencing the great outdoors, to getting the drama your life is thought to be missing. All of us choose what we view based on different motivating factors, of which we may not even be aware of in ourselves.

How Editors Keep us Entertained

While it may not always appear so on TV, most of what we see is carefully thought out by an entire team of editors and producers beforehand. From the clothes a contestant may wear, to the number of camera cuts in an episode – teams of people work to keep reality TV entertaining. There can be up to sixteen different editors cutting the footage for a reality TV show season.

These editors use a series of techniques which have been named ‘Manipulative Editing’ which employ numerous forms. Some of the more familiar ones may be ‘cherry picking’ words. Out of an entire interview or sequence of footage, editors may take only small pieces of that – removing the context of the words – to highlight and dramatize conversations or confessionals. This happens all across reality TV shows to heighten the sense of drama.

Other times editors may completely switch around the order of events on the cutting room floor. This can be used for comedic effect or to make cast members see into the future. A cast member casually mentioning that ‘the car tire might explode’ may be mentioning that because it had previously already happened, but viewers will see it directly after that comment.

Not only have viewers clued into editing techniques from time to time, but cast members themselves – despite NDA’s have had harsh words for what producers choose to show viewers. With how many hours of footage their is and how much of that is most likely boring, producers need to create a methodical storyline in each episode and will employ any technique possible to get that done. If it requires them creating a villain out of an ordinary person, they’ll do it all to keep us entertained.

- A word from our sposor -


The Psychological Secrets Behind Our Obsession with Reality TV