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More Evidence Links Reality Television and Increased Narcissism

What hath the Jersey Shore wrought?

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Researchers are starting to suspect that the much-lamented rise in narcissism over recent generations can be traced, in part, to the influence of reality television. A study we reported on in March found a substantial link between higher narcissism levels and regular viewing of such programs.

New research confirms those findings, and adds an important qualifier: Shows like Jersey Shore can, indeed, increase narcissism, but only for viewers who strongly identify with the self-involved characters.

“Most research on narcissism treats it as a stable personality trait,” notes a research team led by psychologist Bryan Gibson of Central Michigan University. But in this study, “exposure to narcissistic reality TV stars” created shifts in the narcissism levels of some viewers.

Gibson and his colleagues, including Brad Bushman of Ohio State, describe two studies in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture. The first featured 144 undergraduates who identified their three favorite reality shows, and noted how frequently they watch each of them.

They then responded to seven statements designed to measure the extent to which they identified with the characters, such as “At key moments in the show, I feel I know what the individuals featured are going through.”

Finally, they completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, in which they choose between pairs of statements, including “I prefer to blend in with the crowd” vs. “I like to be the center of attention.”

The researchers found that participants who watched more narcissistic shows received higher narcissism scores — but only those who (a) watched the programs frequently, and (b) identified strongly with the characters.

The second study featured 165 college students, who were randomly assigned to watch either a reality show filled with narcissistic characters (Jersey Shore or The Real World), or a scripted comedy (The Office or Friends). Before the screening, half read a fake news article stating that “people experience more enjoyment when they strongly identify with characters in the shows they watch.” The other half read a different bogus article, which stated that “distancing themselves from characters” produced more enjoyment.

After watching the shows, participants noted which character they most closely identified with, and filled out the surveys from the first study that measured how intense that identification was, and revealed their general level of narcissism.

The key result: “Among participants who saw a narcissistic reality show, narcissism scores were significantly higher for participants who read the bogus article stating that experience-taking enhances enjoyment,” the researchers report.

In other words, those who were encouraged to step into the shoes of those self-involved people became more self-involved themselves, at least in the short term. This suggests that, among certain people, watching reality TV directly leads to increased narcissism.

“There are likely a large number of factors that contribute to the development of narcissism,” Gibson and his colleagues caution. But this research provides evidence that, for people who really get immersed in it, reality TV may have unfortunate consequences.

See a Kardashian, be a Kardashian.