Reality TV has brought with it a newfound fascination. Since it’s an early entry into popular culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s, reality TV shows have cultivated an almost cult-like obsession amongst millions of viewers. There is something so wonderfully intellectually sedate and seductively satisfying about the often mindless sense of indulgence that comes with consuming hours of this kind of highly addictive visual junk food. But what is the psychology behind the captivation, what is so alluring about watching some warped and crafted version of reality played out by generally vacuous characters?
In an age of increased social disconnect, it seems that many enjoy the escapism offered in investing and connecting with characters we will never actually meet. These faraway people demand nothing of us while providing us with entertainment. Dr. Jana Scrivani, a licensed clinical psychologist, explains, “Every genre of television, but reality television, in particular, gives us a false sense that we really know the people we see on the screen each week. This sense of having a personal relationship is amplified with the ‘reality’ label, even though we are well aware that the real piece is often greatly exaggerated. Over time, we come to see the folks portrayed on the screen as friends. We identify with their struggles and triumphs.”
This kind of voyeuristic viewing also allows us the opportunity to live vicariously through other people. We share in their experiences, even if we are aware that those experiences are contrived. The enjoyment felt in this voyeurism does have the capacity to veer into psychologically problematic territory.
The social-media obsessed masses often seem to become bizarrely emotionally invested in the shallow and curated lives of other people. There is also something sinister about finding joy in viewing dramatic televised catfights that could actually lead to the emotional trauma of the people involved.
Despite the fine line, for the majority of viewers, this kind of guilty pleasure is innocuous and seemingly harmless. As long as one is capable of discerning what is truly real, by all means, indulge.