For some of us, the success of the television reality show Jersey Shore is emblematic of the end of civilization. New research doesn’t go quite that far, but it does suggest the program, and others like it, can influence viewers’ behavior for the worse.
It finds watching “reality shows” of that variety, in which cast members habitually attack or undermine their rivals, appears to raise the aggression level of viewers.
What’s more, this effect is more pronounced than it is for watching violent fictional crime dramas. Snooki and the gang are apparently more relatable than, say, Dexter, and their bad behavior is more likely to impact ours.
“Our results show that these programs can be more than the guilty pleasures that many viewers claim them to be,” writes a research team led by psychologist Bryan Gibson of Central Michigan University. “They should be viewed as potential triggers for subsequent aggression.”
"Our results show that these programs can be more than the guilty pleasures that many viewers claim them to be. They should be viewed as potential triggers for subsequent aggression."
The study, published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, featured 127 college students. Each individually watched an episode of one of three types of TV program: A reality show featuring little or no aggression (Little People, Big World, or the Little Couple); a reality show with lots of interpersonal aggression (Jersey Shore or Real Housewives of Beverly Hills); or a violent fictional crime drama (CSI or Dexter).
Not surprisingly, the fictional crime shows were heavy on physical aggression, including murder. But the “surveillance reality programs” (the second category) were chock full of “verbal aggression” such as name-calling, as well as “relational aggression,” defined as “actions intended to harm a relationship, including withdrawal of friendship, spreading rumors, and so forth.”
After watching the show, under the guise of a separate study, the participants wrote an essay (about abortion), which they were told would be evaluated by another participant. In fact, the evaluations—which were either enthusiastic or very negative—were distributed randomly.
Finally, each student took part in a “competitive reaction-time task,” in which their opponent was that fictional participant who purportedly graded their essay. Each time they won one of the 25 trials, they were allowed to blast the loser with a loud, unpleasant sound that combined “fingernails scratching a chalkboard, dentist drills, and ambulance sirens.” Their level of aggression was measured by how high they turned up the volume.
The results: Those who watched Jersey Shore or Real Housewives were the most aggressive, blasting the unpleasant noise the loudest. Participants who viewed the more benign reality show were the least aggressive, with those watching the fictional crime show in the middle.
Interestingly, getting a positive or negative evaluation did influence the noise blasts (people were more aggressive in their blasts toward someone who had given them negative feedback), but it influenced all groups in the same way. Regardless of which show they watched, those receiving negative feedback gave more aggressive blasts than those receiving positive feedback.
The key point, the researchers write, is that watching all that aggressive behavior apparently activated an aggressive “schema,” which is psychology speak for “a pattern imposed on complex reality or experience to assist in explaining it, mediate perception, or guide response.”
To put it simply, they immersed themselves in a world where aggressive behavior was the norm, and emerged from it acting more aggressively.
How long it takes for this effect to wear off is, at this point, an open question. But it’s worth remembering that a lot of people watch these shows regularly, and thus frequently get re-stimulated. (Compared to the other categories, study participants who watched Jersey Shore or Real Housewives “reported more history watching those shows,” the researchers note.)
So while we continue to obsess over the impact of playing violent video games, it’s important to also keep in mind the power of an older medium: Television. This study suggests trips to the Jersey Shore can increase aggressiveness, and that’s a most unfortunate Situation.