Paisley Dickey is coiffed to perfection with flawless makeup, spray-tanned skin, and meticulously placed false eyelashes. Her flaxen wig is cropped into a sultry bob, and her skintight dress hugs her small frame. She is dressed as a prostitute from the movie “Pretty Woman,” and she is only 3 years old. This pint-sized beauty queen is a contestant on the controversial reality TV show “Toddlers and Tiaras,” which showcases tiny tots prancing around in provocative, oftentimes overly sexualized outfits. And, like other dramatic reality shows such as “The Real Housewives” and “Jersey Shore,” “Toddler and Tiaras” highlights the tantrums — this time of families competing for sparkling crowns, huge trophies, and cash. And it is the display of this bad behavior (whether manufactured or real) that causes millions of viewers to tune in every week. They watch with amusement — and mostly astonishment — as individuals with larger-than-life personalities drink, sleep, fight, and scheme their way through each episode.
Because they are not directly participating in any of these hijinks, most viewers feel that watching reality TV is a harmless recreation, an escape from their own lives. Yet some psychologists are discussing whether reality shows are as harmless as most people believe. After all, whose reality are we viewing? And is it healthy to constantly observe people who are unafraid of any recourse or repercussions?
When it comes to violence on the small and big screens, there are many groups — including parents, educators, and the Motion Picture Associate of America — who are concerned that watching violence on the screen will encourage and increase violent behavior.
The question, then, is, Will watching people treat one another badly affect the way we treat one another?
Being Better Than the Kardashians
Why do people love reality TV? Some researchers point to “schadenfreude,” a word used to describe the positive feelings some people get when they see others’ misfortunes. Psychologists also describe this as being an extension of social comparison. “If you’re not feeling that great, but you can see something worse happen to someone else, it makes you feel better in comparison. People like to watch these shows and think, ‘Well I wouldn’t be that stupid,’ and it makes us feel less inadequate,” says Dr. Joanne Cantor, psychologist and author of the book, “Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress.”
Take the parenting show “SuperNanny,” where British professional nanny Jo Frost devotes each episode to helping a family where the parents are struggling with their child-rearing. “There are many ways for people to feel good about themselves,” writes Catherine Deveny in the book, “It’s Not My Fault They Print Them.” “Some go to the gym, some meditate, while others help people less fortunate than themselves. When I want to feel good about myself, I watch ‘SuperNanny.’ ” The first time they watched the show, Deveny’s partner turned to her and said, “Our children would never do something like that,” and she replied, “Well, certainly not on television.” She says her three boys relished watching kids behaving badly “as much as we enjoyed judging lazy fathers and indulgent mothers.”
Cantor says that “Reality shows allow us to feel these things without getting out of our chair,” and points out that there is a certain comfort and knowledge we gain about ourselves when we watch reality television.
Another factor to consider is that everything we see and take in affects us on a cognitive level — just like you are what you eat, we are now becoming more and more of what we watch. This concept is called media priming — the idea that what we see, read and hear is influencing our behavior and emotions more than we realize.
“Seeing something in the media really makes it more accessible to our memory, and is more likely to have an effect on us,” says Cantor. “It’s at the top of our minds, and may remind us of similar things in our own lives. When we see an action or emotion, it’s almost like our brain is making us more ready to perform or experience that behavior ourselves. It promotes both imitation and empathy. Our brains are active when we watch things. It stimulates thoughts that are related to it and increases the chances that you will perform that behavior yourself.”
The Desensitizing Nature of TV
Reality shows have a capability to desensitize us to situations and events by which we once might have been appalled. For example, in August 2009, MTV reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of “Jersey Shore” was punched in the face by a man twice her size during a confrontation at a bar over a stolen drink. The altercation was caught on tape, and was used as a teaser for the upcoming episode. But MTV came under a landslide of criticism and decided not to air the footage. “What happened to Snooki was a crime and obviously extremely disturbing,” an MTV spokesman said in a statement. “After hearing from our viewers, further consulting with experts on the issue of violence, and seeing how the video footage has been taken out of context to not show the severity of this act or the resulting consequences, MTV has decided not to air Snooki being physically punched in next week’s episode.”
Still, the footage was seen by millions of viewers. This incident — and much of the cast’s behavior both in Jersey and in Italy, where they shot the last season —not only encourages appalling behavior but also shines a spotlight on what our society deems as suitable and moral television. “A lot of reality stars are becoming celebrities for doing unacceptable things” says Cantor. “Normally if you were to see some really violent thing happening it might cause you to be upset and get emotional, but if you see it over and over again, that sort of behavior that was once shocking slowly becomes more acceptable.”
“Jersey Shore” was MTV’s most watched series telecast in the network’s history during its run, garnering an average of between 6 million and 8 million viewers each week. Dr. Richard Levak is one of the first psychologists to work with television producers to help with casting, to determine which personalities would be able to handle the pressure of reality TV stardom. Until 2007, he had worked on every season of “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” “The Apprentice,” “The Contender,” and others.
“Currently some shows are adding to the coarsening of our society by giving permission or suggesting that fame or fortune could go along with non-empathic manipulative and devious behavior,” says Levak, who recently co-wrote the book, “Therapeutic Feedback with the MMPI-2: A Positive Psychology Approach.”