This is the true story of how we all became hooked on reality TV. They’re corny, they’re cheesy, and they’re over-the-top dramatic. They’re becoming more scripted and less real, yet we still can’t get enough.
What’s behind our fascination with fighting housemates? What makes real-time breakups binge-worthy? How does watching others agonize over decisions keep our attention?
How it started
Nielsen, a global audience measurement company responsible for tracking and compiling rating analytics, cites Survivor as the first reality show to pop up in the top 10 of rankings back in 2000, at the number one spot no less. However, the genre’s beginnings extend back a bit further than that.
If you’re Gen X, you’ll swear the reality maelstrom started with The Real World. Remember it? It’s May 1992, and seven strangers are picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped to show what happens when you stop being polite and start getting real. Yeah, that one. Well, it turns out that the apathetic, latchkey MTV generation (said with all due respect and admiration, of course) doesn’t have ownership of the birth of reality shows, albeit a great one.
Some cite Candid Camera as the first reality show. Premiering in 1948, the show featured hidden cameras capturing the reactions of unsuspecting bystanders who witnessed some type of hijinx or were the victims of a practical joke. Although the moments in the show were definitely real people demonstrating real reactions, what we’re more akin to these days, hit television viewers in 1973.
How It’s Going
So, since 1973, what is it that’s kept us hooked? There must be some psychological phenomena behind our relish for reality TV. Let’s take a look at some possibilities that point to the origins of our hedonistic viewing habits.
The Nerdy Neurological Brain Stuff
Scientifically speaking, an interesting physiological response may be responsible for our fascination with watching other people go through trials and tribulations.
Introducing reality TV’s best-kept secret, the mirror neuron. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that react the same way when we perform an action ourselves as when we watch another person perform that same action. It basically means we get the feeling of the reward with none of the risk.
Stealing away in the dead of night at a luxury resort with a handsome stranger? Navigating the Amazon and surviving for thirty days in a shelter built from three banana leaves and a bamboo stick? Baking a three-tiered buttercream cake worthy of royalty that a world-famous chef touts as the best they’ve ever tasted? You can get the same neurological reaction without ever leaving your couch. So says brain science.
Instant Cash and Clout: That Could Be Me
According to a 2001 study from Psychology Today, reality shows allow individuals to revel in the fantasy of gaining immediate fame and fortune. Many reality shows feature ordinary people attaining a viral level of notoriety, an enormous amount of money, or in many cases, both.
Even though most of us will never venture into the reality contestant realm, watching an elementary school teacher from Minnesota find the love of her life while becoming a household name makes us think we can too.
Our Escape Plan
The simple act of disassociating may be at play with reality TV. The very definition of escapism is “the tendency to seek distraction…especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.” Sounds to us like the reality TV experience in a nutshell.
The release of dopamine (more nerdy science stuff?) occurs any time we experience a pleasurable activity. It helps us feel good and gives us uber-positive vibes. Binge-watching your favorite show can act as a “high” that makes you feel happy and carefree, escaping the feelings of pressure and negativity without the aid of any substance. Escapism á la the small screen.
Connections to the Characters and Your Coworkers
You know the characters. You love them. You’ve met their mom, seen their childhood home, heard stories from their closest friends, and you’re on a first-name basis; they are your friends. At least, that’s what it feels like. We tend to crave the connection we feel with the people on the screen.
It also helps us connect with the ones who live outside of the lighted panel in our living room. You want to be a part of the conversation at the water cooler tomorrow? Better be caught up on the action.
Misery Loves Company, But I’m Not as Miserable as You
Sometimes, as sad as it sounds, it makes us feel better about ourselves to see others struggling. It’s in our nature to look at someone else’s misfortune and feel happy that we’re not as bad off as they are.
There’s something about not weighing 600 pounds or living in a house stuffed to the ceiling with a hoard of junk electronics and dirty dishes that helps us realize we’re at least doing something right.
Whether you love them or love to hate them, there’s no denying their impact, and it’s likely they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Reality television shows are ingrained in our popular culture, conversations, and brains.
If you encounter anyone who won’t admit to even a little interest in reality TV’s offerings, tell them to stop being polite and start getting real.
Photo Credit: Cover Image by MTV, Bachelorette Image by @ABC | Images by ABC Photography