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Reality TV Linked to Heightened Narcissism

New research finds a link between higher levels of narcissism and a preference for certain television genres, including sports.
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(Photo: Henry Burrows/Flickr)

(Photo: Henry Burrows/Flickr)

There's quite a bit of research suggesting Americans are getting more and more narcissistic with each new generation. Why might that be? A number of scholars have pointed to social media platforms such as Facebook, which encourages grandiose self-presentation.

But what about old media? Could television share some of the blame?

new study suggests it can indeed. Among college students, research finds a substantial link between higher narcissism levels and regular viewing of certain TV genres, including reality series, sports, and political talk shows.

"Many of the messages to which we are exposed on the TV today feature rampant self-interest, disregard of others' well-being, and a focus on the individual—which are all components of narcissism," write Robert Lull of the University of Pennsylvania and Ted Dickinson of Ohio State University. "Our research suggests that those messages may, in turn, be cultivating narcissism in society."

The study, in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, featured 565 undergraduates at a large university in the Midwest. Participants were asked how much time they spend watching TV on a daily basis. (The average answer was 3.5 hours.)

"Many of the messages to which we are exposed on the TV feature rampant self-interest, disregard of others' well-being, and a focus on the individual."

They were then presented with a list of 15 TV-show genres, including comedies, crime dramas, game shows, soap operas, and late-night talk shows. They indicated how often they watched programs in each category, using a one-to-seven scale of "never" to "very often."

They then completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, in which they are instructed to choose between 40 pairs of statements. (Example: "I find it easy to manipulate people" vs. "I don't like it when I find myself manipulating people.")

Lull and Dickinson found a correlation between daily TV viewing and narcissism, but further analysis allowed them to narrow this down to exposure to specific genres: reality shows, sporting events, political talk shows, and suspense/thriller/horror dramas.

While that last category is a bit of a puzzle, many sports programs and political talk shows have devolved in recent years into platforms for narcissists. Lull and Dickinson point to golfer Tiger Woods, cyclist Lance Armstrong, and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, who once boasted that "I have more power than anybody other than the president." If these are our youngsters' role models, the rise of narcissism is no surprise.

And then there's reality TV. A 2006 study found celebrities are more narcissistic than the general population, and reality stars are the most narcissistic of celebrities. In most cases, their high levels of self-regard are vividly showcased on their programs.

"The beginning of the modern era of reality TV is loosely traced to around the year 2000, when shows like Survivor and American Idol began," Lull and Dickinson write. "Reality programs proliferated during the formative years of our typical (20- or 21-year-old) participants," they note, and the shows likely had "a persistent influence over the course of many years."

The good news is the study found a negative correlation between narcissism and regularly watching news broadcasts. Consumers of news, the researchers note, tend to be "more civically engaged," and thus more focused on their community than themselves.

Of course, the study was completed long before newscasts started being dominated by a certain narcissistic former reality-show host.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.