Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Real Housewives of Orange County. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF BRAVO)

Reality TV May Warp Viewers’ Perception of Actual Reality

• September 13, 2013 • 4:00 AM

The Real Housewives of Orange County. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF BRAVO)

New research finds that reality television programs that purport to show celebrities’ everyday lives impact viewers’ beliefs about human relationships.

Is “reality television” a harmless diversion? Or does it inadvertently shape viewers’ attitudes in unwanted ways?

Newly published research presents evidence of the latter.

It finds heavy viewers of a specific sub-genre—programs such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which purportedly reveal the reality of celebrities’ day-to-day lives—are more likely to believe that the heightened theatrics of such shows reflect real-world behavior.

In terms of material wealth, viewers realize Kim and Khloe aren’t representative of American women. But they’re more likely than non-viewers to believe their bitchiness and backbiting is representative of the status quo.

For both the male and female characters, romantic relationships are often presented as turbulent, featuring “divorces, extramarital affairs, and the practice of having multiple sex partners.”

Karyn Riddle and J.J. De Simone of the University of Wisconsin surveyed 145 undergraduates (nearly 74 percent of whom were women) about their reality-TV-watching habits. They separated out those who reported watching one or more of 15 popular programs that “follow individuals around as they experience their ‘real’ lives.”

These shows included The Hills, Jersey Shore, Laguna Beach, and the various incarnations of The Real Housewives and The Real World.

As the researchers note, these “docu-soaps” utilize certain common techniques to keep viewers interested. Besides “allowing audiences a peek into a world (of wealth and glamour) they do not personally experience,” they “tend to include significant amounts of relational aggression” and “tend to portray drama and tension within the context of romantic relationships.”

The females, they note, tend to be portrayed as particularly aggressive; they are commonly shown “threatening to withdraw friendship, spreading rumors, and engaging in gossip.” For both the male and female characters, romantic relationships are often presented as turbulent, featuring “divorces, extramarital affairs, and the practice of having multiple sex partners.”

So do viewers understand that this “reality” is being heightened for their entertainment pleasure? To find out, the researchers asked participants a series of questions.

Specifically, they estimated what percentage of Americans belong to a country club; own a hot tub; have had an extramarital affair; and have multiple sexual partners at any time. They were also asked separately to gauge what percentage of men and women “enjoy spreading gossip and rumors” and “could be described as overemotional.”

The results: “Viewers of these programs believe women in the real world engage in bad behaviors (e.g., spreading rumors and verbal aggression) more often than do men,” the researchers write. “Furthermore, heavy viewers of these shows overestimate the prevalence of discord (e.g., affairs and divorces) and an emphasis on sex (e.g., sex on the first date, having multiple sex partners) in romantic relationships.”

This raises disturbing questions that are beyond the scope of the study, such as whether these beliefs impact the viewers’ actual behavior. Presumably, if you come to believe that spreading rumors and sleeping around constitute “normal” behavior, you are more likely to engage in such activities.

And if your template for a romantic relationship includes intense drama and instability, you may be less likely to accept the quieter form of satisfaction that comes with commitment.

“The data presented in this study are correlational, and thus definitive claims about reality TV’s effects on viewers’ beliefs cannot be made from the data,” Riddle cautions. “After all, it could be the case that people who see the world as filled with relational strife and drama—especially on the part of females—might simply be attracted to reality TV programs. More research is needed to explore the possibilities, but this study certainly implies a link between watching surveillance reality TV programs and beliefs about the real world.”

Of course, behavioral cues come from many sources. But it’s worth remembering that regular viewers of crime dramas are more likely to see the world as a dangerous place. To some extent, at least, our view of society is shaped by what—and who—we watch.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.

December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.

December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.

December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?

December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.

December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.

December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.

December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.

December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.

December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.

December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.

December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.

December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.

December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.

December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.

December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.

December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.

December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.

December 15 • 8:00 AM

The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?

December 15 • 6:00 AM

The Lifelong Consequences of Rape

The long-term psychological and physical effects of the experience are devastating. And they’re likely exacerbated by the shame our culture insists on perpetuating.

December 15 • 4:00 AM

Mating Mindset Interferes With Attempts to Stop Smoking

Taiwanese researchers find photos of attractive women put men in an immediate-gratification state of mind.

December 15 • 2:00 AM

Where Innovation Thrives

Innovation does not require an urban area or a suburban area—it can happen in the city or in a small town. What it requires is open knowledge networks and the movement of people from different places.

Follow us

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

There’s More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.