Why you should care
Because now you can say your Hulu binge is an academic exercise.
It was the Most. Dramatic. Season. Ever. Bachelor Brad Womack was back. He had already appeared on the dating show once, wooing 25 women over the course of two months, only to pick no one when it came time to hand out his final rose and propose. But a few seasons later, the mega-empire of a dating show brought Womack back.
There was something delicious and dark and familiar in the highly wrought scenes of Womack tearing up, Womack telling the camera earnestly that he was ready to let love in, Womack on the phone with his shrink. He and his cast of eligible ladies were a wild, spun-out, magnified, grotesque version of our worst neuroses and intimacy issues, distorted but compelling mirrors of our dating world who showed us the paradox of choice in action; the competitive impulses that emerge when we fight for a lover as a prize; the power a man wields, ironically, by shutting himself off from his pursuers. In other words, they were America’s collective psychology writ large. Which makes us wonder: Why not use reality shows like The Bachelor as fruitful grounds for social science research?
Do participants go Machiavelli and always act in their self-interest?
A cry of assent comes from Joti Samra, a clinical psychologist, consultant to The Bachelor Canada and expert on Confessions: Animal Hoarding, who tells me these shows are “a microcosm of society” and therefore “perfect environments to study social psychology.” Take The Bachelor, in which participants fly around the world, likely with interrupted sleep schedules; go on adrenaline-filled dates (a rush one might mistake for love, notes Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic) and juggle house friendships with their objects of lust. They’re ideal scenarios to study how an environment affects mental health: Just add weekly check-ins with a researcher, suggests Samra, and you might get “very rich data” (and a few more legal docs to sign).
Or take Survivor, or Ashton Kutcher’s lamentably short-lived Beauty and the Geek — which paired pretty ditzes with socially struggling nerds and had them compete — or any other show with a prize at the end and alliances to navigate: They’re testing ground for game theory-type situations. Do participants go Machiavelli and always act in their self-interest? On Kutcher’s show, one finalist threw the game for himself and his own team, giving up a quarter-million buckaroos because he thought his partner hadn’t learned her lesson (something about beauty, skin-deep, etc.). Might we learn something about the complex nature of competition?
I know, I know — I smell your skepticism from afar. It’s all scripted, you cry! They’re not like me, you insist! They’re disgustingly self-absorbed! Of course, there’s a “self-selection bias,” Samra says, and, of course, the shows are casted (not a random sampling). But Twenge suggests that narcissists, who, her research shows, predictably flock to reality TV themselves, are worth studying. After all, we’ve always learned from “abnormal” psychology.
But perhaps the biggest reason of all? People watch this stuff, and “it’s a very powerful source of norms,” says Twenge. “It’s going to shape people’s idea of what normal is.” So why not take it seriously? Hand me the popcorn, tissues and lab notebook.