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Reality TV May Warp Viewers’ Perception of Actual Reality

New research finds that reality television programs that purport to show celebrities’ everyday lives impact viewers’ beliefs about human relationships.
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The Real Housewives of Orange County. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF BRAVO)

The Real Housewives of Orange County. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF BRAVO)

Is “reality television” a harmless diversion? Or does it inadvertently shape viewers’ attitudes in unwanted ways?

Newly published research presents evidence of the latter.

It finds heavy viewers of a specific sub-genre—programs such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which purportedly reveal the reality of celebrities’ day-to-day lives—are more likely to believe that the heightened theatrics of such shows reflect real-world behavior.

In terms of material wealth, viewers realize Kim and Khloe aren’t representative of American women. But they’re more likely than non-viewers to believe their bitchiness and backbiting is representative of the status quo.

For both the male and female characters, romantic relationships are often presented as turbulent, featuring “divorces, extramarital affairs, and the practice of having multiple sex partners.”

Karyn Riddle and J.J. De Simone of the University of Wisconsin surveyed 145 undergraduates (nearly 74 percent of whom were women) about their reality-TV-watching habits. They separated out those who reported watching one or more of 15 popular programs that “follow individuals around as they experience their ‘real’ lives.”

These shows included The Hills, Jersey Shore, Laguna Beach, and the various incarnations of The Real Housewives and The Real World.

As the researchers note, these “docu-soaps” utilize certain common techniques to keep viewers interested. Besides “allowing audiences a peek into a world (of wealth and glamour) they do not personally experience,” they “tend to include significant amounts of relational aggression” and “tend to portray drama and tension within the context of romantic relationships.”

The females, they note, tend to be portrayed as particularly aggressive; they are commonly shown “threatening to withdraw friendship, spreading rumors, and engaging in gossip.” For both the male and female characters, romantic relationships are often presented as turbulent, featuring “divorces, extramarital affairs, and the practice of having multiple sex partners.”

So do viewers understand that this “reality” is being heightened for their entertainment pleasure? To find out, the researchers asked participants a series of questions.

Specifically, they estimated what percentage of Americans belong to a country club; own a hot tub; have had an extramarital affair; and have multiple sexual partners at any time. They were also asked separately to gauge what percentage of men and women “enjoy spreading gossip and rumors” and “could be described as overemotional.”

The results: “Viewers of these programs believe women in the real world engage in bad behaviors (e.g., spreading rumors and verbal aggression) more often than do men,” the researchers write. “Furthermore, heavy viewers of these shows overestimate the prevalence of discord (e.g., affairs and divorces) and an emphasis on sex (e.g., sex on the first date, having multiple sex partners) in romantic relationships.”

This raises disturbing questions that are beyond the scope of the study, such as whether these beliefs impact the viewers’ actual behavior. Presumably, if you come to believe that spreading rumors and sleeping around constitute “normal” behavior, you are more likely to engage in such activities.

And if your template for a romantic relationship includes intense drama and instability, you may be less likely to accept the quieter form of satisfaction that comes with commitment.

"The data presented in this study are correlational, and thus definitive claims about reality TV's effects on viewers' beliefs cannot be made from the data," Riddle cautions. "After all, it could be the case that people who see the world as filled with relational strife and drama—especially on the part of females—might simply be attracted to reality TV programs. More research is needed to explore the possibilities, but this study certainly implies a link between watching surveillance reality TV programs and beliefs about the real world."

Of course, behavioral cues come from many sources. But it's worth remembering that regular viewers of crime dramas are more likely to see the world as a dangerous place. To some extent, at least, our view of society is shaped by what—and who—we watch.