It’s no longer just your mom who thinks trashy TV is bad for you: a new study has found that reality shows make viewers more aggressive.
Research into the effects of “harmless entertainment” was undertaken by psychologists at Central Michigan University, who measured viewer responses to a reality program exhibiting verbal and relational aggression, another containing supportive family interactions, and a violent crime drama.
127 college students watched Real Housewives and Jersey Shore to ascertain the effects of verbal aggression on-screen, Little People, Big World and The Little Couple to see supportive relationships, and Dexter and CSI to gauge the impact of physically hostile shows.
Half of the study’s participants then received an ego threat, with aggression quantified using “the intensity and duration of noise administered to an ostensible opponent on a competitive reaction time task.” The results showed that those who had been dabbling in the dark arts of the Shore’s GTL crew had the most aggressive reactions, casting our viewing habits into an entirely new light.
“Many reality TV programs contain aggressive acts, and our goal was to evaluate whether or not exposure to this type of program increases aggression,” explained Bryan Gibson, a psychology professor at CMU who co-authored the paper. “This research clearly shows that these programs are not simply harmless entertainment—exposure to this verbal and relational aggression increases physical aggression.”
The paper identifies aggressive acts (such as withdrawal of friendship, spreading of rumors, and name-calling) as behavior that can have negative effects on viewers—all of which are regular tropes in reality TV. To be frank, this kind of “entertainment” serves little other purpose than offering up an hour-long experiment into which network can get the highest number of women with a penchant for shoes they can’t pronounce the names of in one place at a time, in hopes they’ll scratch each other’s eyes out. And, as pretty much every show of this ilk has proved, that formula works.
“These findings are alarming because TV is very popular in our society,” Gibson continued. “These programs can potentially trigger aggression, making them more than just a guilty pleasure.”
The study also showed that those who watched violent crime dramas weren’t exactly sweetness and light afterwards: such shows also provoked a more aggressive response from participants than the family-centered programs did, refreshing enduring fears about the impact of screen crime on real lives.
Copycat acts of brutality mirroring the violence exhibited in video games, movies and TV shows have become increasingly apparent in the past few years: Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik cited Call of Duty as assisting his “target acquisition”; a 15-year-old in the UK killed his mother after watching a gory scene in a soap opera; an eight-year-old Louisiana boy purposely shot his grandmother after playing a violent video game. If we recognize the damaging possibilities of large-scale violence on viewers, it is all that surprising that smaller acts of aggression would have an effect?
There are endless examples of people blurring the lines between the fantasy they see on-screen and reality, and then going on to commit horrific crimes: it’s an area well-trodden by psychologists worldwide. But this new research is one of the first of its kind to use experimental methods in documenting the causal effects of watching reality TV, and whether that show you tune into to switch off your brain is actually doing the opposite.
Given these findings, there’s surely a need to probe this area further and measure the real impact such shows are having on people. Playing javelin with a prosthetic leg à la RHONY may seem innocuous/freaking absurd, but if trash TV is changing our behavior for the worse without us even realizing it, that’s pretty worrying.
It’s too early to tell whether we need to stage some kind of moratorium on watching people rip each other’s wigs off in the Real Housewives of Atlanta, or a clamp down on re-runs of the Situation’s sporadic smackdowns, but it’s important to recognize that reality shows might not be as harmless as they seem. A world without NeNe shouting in people’s faces about how rich she is feels like a bleak one, but it may be a sacrifice we need to make.