The genre known as reality TV became popular in the early 2000s; however, it actually began in 1948 with Candid Camera. The Dating Game followed in 1965, That’s Incredible in 1980, and Cops in 1989. The 2000s gave us action reality shows like Survivor, Fear Factor, and The Amazing Race, and dating shows like The Bachelor and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire. Talent competition shows later emerged, with shows like American Idol and Dancing With the Stars. Finally, an abundance of celebrity reality shows began, featuring people like Donald Trump, Tyra Banks, and the Kardashians.
Psychologists Steven Reiss and James Wiltz conducted a study called “Why People Watch Reality TV.” They asked 239 adults to rate how much they watched and enjoyed reality shows. They also had participants rate themselves on 16 basic motivations, which influence what people pay attention to and what they choose to do. However, basic motivations must continually be satisfied: once a person has eaten, hunger re-emerges; a person who enjoys arguing might pick a fight after a few days of no conflict. This theory suggests that people continually watch reality shows that satisfy their most important needs. The study also revealed status as a primary motivation for watching reality TV. Reiss and Wiltz concluded, “The more status-oriented people are, the more likely they are to view reality television and report pleasure and enjoyment.”
People watch reality shows for many reasons. Some are merely interested in the topic of the show; others enjoy getting a peek behind the scenes of a celebrity’s life. Reality shows answer questions such as: What is it like to participate in daring escapades? What is it like to win cash? What’s required to keep your home decluttered? How do you plan a wedding? What is it like to sing or dance in front of millions? Reality TV is also a way to escape the problems of life or fantasize about being famous. After all, the people on these shows often seem like normal, down to earth people. If they can be in the spotlight, if they can be rich, maybe someday we can be as well.
Although watching reality TV can be highly entertaining, an article on NPR.org cautions that watching such shows can impact real-life behavior. The constant intake of drama and negativity might not be healthy for viewers. Psychologist Bryan Gibson concluded that watching shows with high aggression can make people more aggressive in their real lives. This may be a good reason to avoid or at least limit watching shows with high levels of negative drama and violence.
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