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Reality TV: Possible Side Effects

By Julie Sweeting

Photo credit: Pixabay

I find myself watching reality TV shows more often than I tend to admit. A quick coffee break and a sneaky ten minutes of watching other peoples' lives keeps my interest in other people topped up as people watching is one of my favourite pastimes. I love to learn about people, however, I have often wondered if watching these types of shows can cause more harm than good, or if they offer a feel-good factor that makes people feel better about themselves!

When talking to people in general about reality TV shows, you hear conflicting views. Some people love them and can't wait to catch the next episode of programmes like 'Made in Chelsea', and some can't wait to tell you about their distaste for the 'nonsense shows', as in a conversation I overheard very recently. But television producers aren't naïve and wouldn't be producing television shows with low ratings when billions of pounds are spent each year on advertisements, which would not happen if television viewing didn't have an impact on viewers. Central Michigan University psychology professor Bryan Gibson has found that reality TV may have a bigger impact on us than we realise. [1]

Professor Gibson, his graduate students and co-researcher Brad Bushman of Ohio State University have undertaken their own research to study the effects of reality shows on behaviour. The 127 students who took part were split into two groups. One group viewed family-based, supportive reality programmes whilst the other group watched programmes like Jersey Shore, a TV reality show that at times displays verbal and relational aggression. Their hypothesis was that reality shows can affect behaviour and the study showed that the group watching the family-based, supportive programmes were less aggressive compared to the group who watched the shows containing aggression and violence. [1]

Reasons for the effect on behaviour can be explained in part by the social cognitive theory. Exposure to content that is aggressive can result in a change in a person's attitudes or beliefs. This can come about due to repeated exposure to aggressive behaviour that in turn desensitises a person, meaning that they start to view negative behaviours in a less negative light. Berkowitz (1993) suggests that one way social learning operates is through priming. Watching negative behaviour on a regular basis creates memories of this behaviour and the associated responses and emotions. This may then result in a person encountering a similar situation they have watched and acting in response to the stored memory. [2]

Although studies do show an increase in negative behaviours due to the repeated exposure of negative behaviour, it is also important to note that not everyone will be affected by this exposure. The effects will also depend on the person's personality, their general environment and so on. It is also the case that although studies show that programmes like these have an effect on us, there is no absolute proof, as it is very difficult to obtain a person's whole life past history prior to the studies and life experiences they may not consciously be aware of that may result in programmes triggering a behaviour that is already there. [2]

One thing that does concern me is that from some of the shows I've seen myself, relational aggression isn't always viewed in a negative light. In a short episode you see someone acting negatively towards another person and displaying a behaviour that may not necessarily be accepted in the outside world, within a few minutes you then see that the whole thing has been resolved without seeing all the effects that particular behaviour has had, for example – the effect on friends and family. Could it also be the case that because these negative behaviours are being displayed on television programmes, some people may take it that because they are there for public viewing that television producers are saying it is perfectly alright to behave in that manner?

Anastasia Harrell, who has a master's degree in clinical psychology suggests that the reality TV shows do provide a feel-good factor, although it may only be a for a short time. She explains that Leon Festinger's social comparison theory is evident in that we compare our own lives to those we watch on television and watching other people struggle makes us feel better about our own lives, although this is usually only for a temporary period of time until we get back and engrossed in our own lives [3] This can also work in the opposite way though, watching people who have lots of money, socialising often in bars and clubs, with expensive cars and so on, can leave a person who is for example struggling with debt, feel worse about themselves. Therefore it isn't always a feel-good factor that is achieved!

There is another point to the popularity of these types of programmes. Many people these days have to work longer hours and with other commitments it can make it difficult to build meaningful relationships with other people. Leiberman, one of the founders of social cognitive neuroscience, suggests that our predisposition to be social is one reason people watch reality shows. [4] Through watching people on television, the viewers get to connect with the characters, learn about their traits and personalities, become a viewer in that person's life and feel as if a distant friendship has been built. This can in some cases help to ease isolation. What tends to not be widely advertised though is the fact that with some of the shows classed as reality TV shows, the personalities on stage are following scripts so people aren't actually connecting with the person in ways they feel they are!

It stands to reason that as social beings we like to connect with others but it does seem that supportive based reality TV shows are the way forward and this may already be starting to happen as viewing figures for many reality programmes are starting to fall. Perhaps people are starting to realise that things may not always be as they seem behind the scenes, or possibly that so much reality programming has appeared on television that people are now becoming immune to it and starting to get bored with it! It would be interesting to find out the exact effect these shows can have on us but because of all the factors involved and not being able to follow someone every minute of every day to see what other influences they are exposed too, it is something that we will never fully understand!


  1. 'Current research at CMU explores modern life' available at (accessed 18/11/15)
  2. J. Oates, Investigating Psychology, 2nd Ed, 2012, 'Learning from watching' The Open University, Oxford Press
  3. Reality Television:Behind the obsession available from (accessed 18/11/15)
  4. UCLA neuroscientist's book explains why social connection is as important as food and shelter available at (accessed 24/11/15)

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