Why We Love Reality Dating Shows, According to Psychologists
Outstanding personalities, get-together for two, bungee jumping followed by a picnic at sunset on a cliff in Costa Rica. We know that reality shows do not reflect real life at all – and we are not unaware of their generally low success rates. Still, we’re still glued to the screen as they stream, read social media comments on each episode, and search for spoilers to find out who ends up with whom. When “reality” dating shows are so clearly fiction, why are these TV shows so addictive?
We are fascinated by love.
“The subject of romance always interests people,” says Amber L. Ferris, Ph.D, associate professor, School of Communication, University of Akron. It doesn’t matter if the formula is repeated over and over again – we find the subject of love endlessly fascinating, and we always have.
“For millions of years, humans have watched others for advice on how to live,” notes Dr. Helen Fisher, principal investigator at the Kinsey Institute and author or Anatomy of love. “We are so determined to understand love that we will even neglect the artificial when we read a novel, watch a movie or play.”
For better or for worse, we learn to behave with reality TV shows.
According to social cognitive theory, says Dr. Ferris, we learn by observing behaviors and imitating those that lead to positive results. This includes scrutinizing the bad guys, the good guys, and the happy and unhappy couples on these dating shows.
“We see many personality characteristics and archetypes of different relationships displayed in these shows, viewers often find people they can bond with,” says relationship researcher and coach Marisa T. Cohen, Ph.D., CPLC. “For example, a character with unrequited love may resonate with you if you have the same experience.” Many also look to these characters for inspiration, as with the Bachelor in paradise candidate Ashley Ianotti, who “spent seasons in a relationship over and over with Jared, before finally landing and marrying him, the man of her dreams,” she adds. Ianotti’s story may have given others hope for the scroll collection.
These shows excite us.
We tend to invest ourselves in the characters of these shows and to be affected by what is happening on the screen. “It is no different from watching a football game and feeling better when your favorite team wins,” says Dr. Fisher. She assumes that these shows could also activate brain systems related to libido, romantic love and attachment. For example, when we watch a suitor finally tell someone he is dating that he loves him, we might experience an increase in dopamine (the neurotransmitter linked to romantic love and elation). When we see a couple get excited, our bodies can release testosterone (the hormone linked to libido). And, when a couple snuggles up against the screen, our body probably releases oxytocin (the neurotransmitter associated with attachment). These may not be real relationships, but the feelings they give us are real.
We savor the drama.
Since these shows usually present exaggerated versions of real relationships, says Dr. Cohen, the drama is high and we wrap ourselves in tumultuous stories – especially since the producers are likely to have selected people who will create or add to the suspense, she continues. In this way, these shows are no different from other TV series or movies we watch for their entertainment value.
They bring us closer to a community.
The reality shows are part of American culture, watched by millions of people. “These shows meet our need to talk to others on a common topic and are our new topics on water coolers,” says Dr. Cohen. Isn’t peeling the pros and cons of each couple more fun than watching the episodes on certain days?
“When Love is blind came out, there were forums and articles dedicated to the analysis of each couple on the show, ”she adds. “So it basically created a community for passionate fans. Research has also shown that people tend to bond with negative attitudes towards others. This helps explain why so many people come together to dislike an ordinary person who can be described as the bad guy in these shows. “
They give us a chance to escape.
More than ever, people are looking for relaxing entertainment. During these shows, “We follow couples in exotic places, watch them on fantastic dates and see them navigate through a series of dramatic events,” says Dr. Cohen. It’s easy to get carried away by all the outward signs of a fairy tale.
“The programs take you to a fantastic suite with roses and champagne,” says media psychologist June Wilson, Ph.D., RN. “People want to be swept away.” Adding to the wellness cocktail, seeing attractive people tends to trigger the release of dopamine, a wellness neurotransmitter, adds Dr. Fisher.
Treat yourself without guilt.
You can now feel enabled to watch Married at first sight, Engaged 90 days, The single person franchise, or [insert the poison of your choice]. After all, these shows are successful for a reason – they appeal to the basic drives and mechanisms that make us human. And there is nothing to be ashamed of in this reality.