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Guest Commentary: The Dangerous Reality of Reality Television

Sep 22, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Most people have heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment, social psychology’s version of reality TV, which was conducted in the early ’70s.

In this experiment, 12 paid volunteer students were “arrested” at their homes and driven by the Stanford University police department to the Stanford psychology department’s basement, where they were incarcerated in a makeshift prison. Another group of paid volunteer students became the prison guards.

Designed to examine group and role behavior, the study had to be abandoned after only a few days because the “prisoners” were showing traumatic stress symptoms and the guards were becoming increasingly hostile and violent. The study revealed how easily people lose their psychological perspective when placed in intense emotional conditions.

In the same way, reality TV can mobilize people’s emotions to an enormous degree. Some people can lose sight of the fact that they are involved in a game, especially as the stakes get higher and higher, and if they are also deprived of sleep, food and outside counterbalancing experiences. People’s emotions can easily be hijacked by these unusual situations. In fact, reality TV is so compelling precisely because it can be so real.

The producers of reality shows, like the white-coated researchers at Stanford, have an enormous amount of psychological power over the contestants. Especially as a show progresses, producers could make almost any demand on the contestant and have it fulfilled. As Lord Acton once famously remarked, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

So, given that reality shows can mobilize and even hijack people’s emotions, and the producers have an enormous, almost absolute power over contestants, does that mean that reality TV is too bad and too dangerous to continue? Not necessarily and not always. Careful screening to exclude candidates who are psychologically fragile, even if the producers find them compelling and interesting characters, is a basic prerequisite of responsible TV.

Moreover, producers need to know that even some well-functioning contestants may need some TLC and deprogramming after a psychologically demanding show. Contestants can sometimes feel let down and consequently somewhat used after an intense and demanding TV show finishes, especially if they feel discarded by the producers.

Producers also need to be aware of the power they wield and avoid any temptation to abuse it by pushing limits and cajoling contestants into psychologically compromising acts. Producers have to remember that they, in the heat of the ratings moment, can also lose their psychological perspective, pushing contestants to a point where everybody may later regret it.

Contestants can feel particularly violated if they feel a show was somehow unfair to them and that they therefore endured some humiliation for no apparent good reason. It is important for me to say that, in my experience as a reality TV show psychologist, producers have generally been very ethical and mindful of following their own rules, sometimes in spite of wringing their hands at the reality of the reality TV show.

Producers also should be aware of the psychological tendency for them to keep pushing the envelope in reality TV. The danger is that the envelope can keep expanding until somebody gets hurt, and then the whole TV genre could implode, at least for a while.

I think it’s also important to mention that of the more than 100 contestants who have appeared on “Survivor,” I can honestly say that more than 90 percent said it was the best experience of their lives and that the experience changed them for the positive. That, in itself, keeps me involved.

Reality TV does have a real place in entertainment, and it can be quite beneficial to some people. However, it has to be done carefully and with great respect for the power of human psychology.

Most reality TV shows would not be allowed to take place as psychological experiments by the powerful Human Subjects Committees that guard volunteers’ rights in psychological experiments. These bodies, set up after abuses occurred in psychological experiments, can be so strict that many useful psychological experiments cannot be conducted.

Producers should begin thinking outside the box of standard reality TV, coming up with shows that are compelling but not necessarily traumatic or humiliating. Audiences love to observe the human animal in all its candid moments. However, don’t forget that people love to watch the range of human emotion, not just anger, mean-spiritedness, rejection and treachery.

They can also enjoy watching other humans in playful moments, exhibiting surprised delight, moments of deep compassion and sensual sexuality. Reality TV is here to stay and it’s only just beginning to develop. If it’s done responsibly and creatively, it still has a long way to go.

Dr. Richard Levak, a personality expert, is a psychologist for “Survivor,” “Amazing Race” and other television shows.